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Could a Bluetooth Tracking Tag Help You Locate a Stolen Bike?

bluetooth tracking tag on bike

If you’ve ever had your bike stolen, you know that gut-wrenching feeling you get when your bike isn’t where you left it. You also know the lengths to which you’ll go to track it down (not only to get the bike back but to exact revenge on the thief.)

For me, when my first ever race bike – a red Giant XTC SE2, let me know if you see it – was stolen in Boston, I went through all the normal channels of trying to get it back. But, being in an entrepreneurship class at the time, I also looked to devise a solution to help recover stolen bicycles.

My idea was to use some type of GPS chip which could be hidden inside the frame or somewhere inconspicuous (perhaps as part of the front derailleur.) Then, if your bike was stolen, you could use some type of computer program to track it down in real time.

It might not sound like much today, but this was back in 2006 – almost a full year before the iPhone was released! Heck, I was just getting basic cell phones figured out; I had never seen a “smartphone” in my life!

The technology existed, but it was nothing like today where everything electronic is GPS-enabled. There was also no such thing as crowdfunding campaigns. If you wanted backers, you needed to pitch to venture capitalists or an angel investor. You couldn’t just log on to Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

Which is to say, my idea never got off the ground. But in this day and age, a bicycle recovery solution could be a lot more plausible. The technology is here, it’s cheap and accessible, and nearly everyone who owns a bike also owns a GPS and Bluetooth-enabled smartphone running iOS or Android apps.

Why not take one of these new Bluetooth tracking chips meant for finding lost keys or a lost wallet and use it to track your bicycle?

Really, why not? I want to know!

Let’s see if it could work…

The problem is, what can you do about a stolen bike?

Obviously you have bike locks to prevent bike theft in the first place. That’s taken care of. And if your bike is stolen, you can file a police report, submit a claim to your insurance company, and hopefully get enough money to buy a new bike. That system is in place.

But as far as recovering your bike, it’s all luck. Yeah, you can watch eBay and Craigslist, and search the neighborhood, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll be successful. There won’t be any sort of trail leading you to your bike.

There’s essentially nothing you can do but sit, wait, and feel helpless.

These Bluetooth tracking tags are the missing puzzle piece.

These tracking tags fill that gap. They’re sort of like LoJack for cars in that they actually help you find what was stolen. They’ll let you actively search for your bike.

How do they work?

trackr tag size comparison

Imagine inserting a GPS tracking beacon inside the bicycle frame and then watching a dot move on a map on your phone or computer. It’s the same idea.

But, to come in at a reasonable price point (the Kryptonite Real Time GPS tracking system is $300-500,) you can’t be putting tiny GPS-enabled chips in the bike.

So instead, you put a Bluetooth-enabled chip inside the bike, and pair that with your smartphone’s internal GPS! By piggybacking off the phone’s GPS and built-in mapping apps, you eliminate the expensive parts and end up with a product users can afford.

Bluetooth is not GPS, though. Obviously you can’t just walk around town with your phone in hand, hoping you come within 100 feet of your stolen bike, and it lights up on your screen. That’s where the crowd element comes into play.

If you mark your item as stolen, other app users will passively scan for your tag, and if one of them comes within range of it, the location will pop up on your map!

Sounds too good to be true, huh?

Well, the big downside is that you need to be in a well-populated area with lots of other app users, or it won’t do you much good. The bigger downside is that all these other users need to turn on that feature (which drains their battery life) to help other people they don’t know. If they’ve never had their bike stolen before, they’re probably not keen on helping others like you.

You have to decide if it’s worth it.

You can get your own tag for $30 or less.

There are a handful of these trackers out there to consider (and a whole bunch that are total garbage and aren’t listed.) They all offer essentially the same functions, but with enough differences that you need to do your homework.

Mostly you need to be concerned with battery life, size of the tag, price, and usability of the app.

Here’s a quick overview:

TrackR Bravo

The Bravo is the latest revision of the TrackR. The $30 tag is about the size of a quarter, made of aluminum, and comes in four different colors. It offers a user-replaceable battery and it’s the only one I’ve seen which mentions that it could be used for locating a stolen bike!

www.TheTrackR.com

Tile

Starting at $25, the Tile is a small square tag with a good reputation for actually working. Unfortunately, the battery cannot be replaced, so when it dies (after a claimed one-year life,) you’re looking at a $20 replacement cost instead of $1 upkeep cost each year.

www.TheTileApp.com

Protag Duet

The $40 Duet uses a replaceable battery (claimed 6-month lifespan) and comes in many bright colors.

www.TheProtag.com

Find

The $30 Find uses a replaceable battery (claimed 6-month lifespan) and offers lots of good features for anyone who frequently loses their phone or keys (or both.)

www.SenseGiz.com

bluetooth tracking tag phone app

But will it really locate your stolen bike?

Before you spend hundreds of dollars and start tagging all your bikes, parts, and pets, remember that it’s not a perfect world.

Be aware of:

  • Battery life (Sometimes it’s six months, sometimes one year – that’s a big difference.)
  • Size of the unit (It needs to fit on or inside the item you’re tracking so it’s hidden from thieves but accessible by you.)
  • Signal range (The range of your phone’s Bluetooth radio is generally claimed to be 100 feet, but it’s often much lower in real world conditions.)
  • Interference from the bicycle frame material (If the tag is hidden inside a bicycle frame, there’s going to be some interference. Especially if it’s a metal frame.)
  • Safety issues of confronting a thief (Because chances are, the bike isn’t just sitting out in the open, gift wrapped for you.)
  • You need a smartphone (You probably have one, in this day and age, but nevertheless. The phone does most of the work. The tag itself has no GPS or cellular connection.)
  • The app needs a big community of users (The more users in your area, the greater chances of finding your lost items.)

It’s the user community that really makes or breaks this. You need A LOT of users running the app to create a worthwhile coverage network.

If you’ve ever used the Waze app, you know what I mean. Waze is a GPS app that bases the suggested driving route on live traffic conditions, as determined by other users (according to their current speeds and reported traffic jams.) It works rather well in big cities, but in smaller cities and towns, it can do more harm than good.

(Speaking of Waze, wouldn’t that be cool if Waze integrated with TrackR to expand the crowd GPS feature?! Then any Waze user driving past your stolen item would pick up the signal.)

Here’s what I would do…

This is all hypothetical. My opinion is based on being an avid cyclist as well as looking at the business side of things.

As far as buying one of these tags, I’m going to sit back and wait. With all the potential problems, and all the bugs I’ve been reading about, I’d rather wait till 1) they are more reliable and 2) come as a 3-pack for $30. I still use an iPhone 4 which doesn’t have the new Bluetooth hardware required for this stuff anyway.

But if you want to attempt tracking your bike, live in a big city, and have a new enough phone, I’d say the TrackR Bravo is your best option as far as promised features. But due to bugs, shipping delays, etc., Tile might be better in real life. And either one is probably best suited to help prevent you walking out of a restaurant without your wallet, rather than finding anything stolen.

 

Anyone using these for your keys? Anyone actually using one of these in/on your bike?

 

Photo credits: TrackR

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3 Comments
  1. You directed us to imagine inserting a GPS tracking beacon inside the bicycle frame and then watching a dot move on a map on your phone or computer. Do they have this same kind of technology that people can use to find their keys or phones? While my family and I were on a road trip my wife lost her keys and couldn’t find them. Finding a product like this could be a good option for the future.

  2. Hmm.. instead of the Bluetooth nonsense, a device that can hook up to common wifi hotspots would solve Internet problems – local library, Starbucks, McDonalds, etc. and if the person has an account with an ISP that connects to hotspots, it would use those credentials. Would have to be programmable and have two way configuration – phone connects to device via wifi, and device connects to hotspot — see home security cameras as an example. It could learn like a phone does to automatically login to various hotspots.

    For battery saving, a motion sensor could trigger, connects to hotspot and notifies the owner.

    Bike gets stolen? It’s bound to connect to a hotspot at some point and give away it’s location.

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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