IoT-related: US commercial airlines push back against smart luggage
by Olivier Blanchard | December 7, 2017
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Bad news for early adopters of IoT-powered consumer goods: major US commercial airlines have just issued new terms of service language limiting the use of smart luggage on their flights. CNN and TechCrunch report that American Airlines, Delta, Alaska, United, Continental, and Southwest have all joined in the effort.

Per American Airlines, here is what the restrictions entail:

“Beginning Jan. 15, customers who travel with a smart bag must be able to remove the battery in case the bag has to be checked at any point in the customer’s journey. If the battery cannot be removed, the bag will not be allowed.”

Note that travelers will not be asked to remove their bag’s battery if they take their smart bag into the main cabin with them.

Pictured: Travelmate’s autonomous suitcase

What prompted the move? Safety. Most smart luggage are powered by lithium ion batteries (like laptops and smart phones), and the FAA (the Federal Aviation Administration) has fairly strict rules regarding lithium ion batteries traveling in checked luggage. You may recall commercial airlines imposing restrictions on certain Samsung devices because of the risk of fire not long ago. Same thing.

Per CNN:

“The FAA rules are designed to keep possible over-heating or short-circuiting batteries out of the cargo hold in case they catch fire. In the cabin they can quickly be reached by a crew member or a passenger in the event of an issue.”

Fair enough.

Pictured: Travelmate’s autonomous suitcase

So what exactly is “smart luggage?” Per the FAA, it’s any bag or luggage equipped with a lithium ion battery. For the rest of us though, it can be luggage with an IP address, a power supply with which to charge phones and laptops, and/or some kind of smart automated functionality. Here are the main categories:

  • Luggage with a built-in power bank
  • Luggage with a GPS locator
  • Luggage with an electronic lock
  • Self-propelled, self-guiding luggage
  • Luggage that doubles as a personal transportation device
  • Some combination of the above
Pictured: Bluesmart’s smart suitcase

If you own that type of luggage and the battery can be easily removed, you’re good to go. Just make sure that your “personal item” has enough room in it to accommodate that battery when you travel. If you own that type of luggage and the battery cannot be easily removed however, you may want to sell it on eBay while you still can, or stick to rail.

Beyond the public service announcement this post is meant to be, there are two lessons to be learned from this move:

1. For consumers: Before you invest in a clever new technology, take some time to consider all of the ways that this new technology or gadget will either fail to solve a problem for you, or will end up being banned in the next 12-18 months. Given how strict airlines are about batteries and electronics these days, this should have been easy to predict.

Pictured: Modobag’s rideable luggage

2. For product managers: Before you waste 18+ months and millions of dollars in R&D, testing, tooling, production, distribution, marketing, and the launch of a new product category, make sure that you’ve gotten a concrete and crystal clear green light from regulatory agencies, legislators, and whatever other bodies have the power to throw your hard work and investment down the drain. Specifically:

  • If you’re making smart luggage, get them approved by the FAA, the TSA, and all major commercial carriers. Get ahead of all of the potential hurdles and problems that may come up along the way.
  • Make changes to your product in anticipation of these problems. (Trust me, if you consult with with airlines, the TSA, and the FAA on something like this, you will get a comprehensive list of concerns you cant then incorporate into your product’s design.) If these changes push your release back to the next quarter, that’s just how it goes. Next time, consult with your industry earlier in the process.
  • Compliance with industry standards and chasing industry certifications will help navigate that terrain as well.

It doesn’t matter if you’re developing revolutionary spray valves for commercial kitchens (like I used to in a former life), dog toys, smart luggage, voice-activated toasters, self-driving cars, or autonomous drones: don’t cut corners. Work with, not around regulators, certifying agencies, and industry gatekeepers. Get ahead of these types of problems before they become problems. It doesn’t hurt to even help develop entirely new industry standards for performance, safety, power consumption, etc. Getting buy-in from your industry’s power centers always pays of.

Case in point: Smart bags with easily removable batteries are going to be just fine. Smart bags with batteries that can’t be easily removed though? Different story. That’s an expensive mistake, especially given how easily it could have been avoided. And this is nothing. We’re just talking about smart luggage here, which is still a pretty niche product category. Now imagine the same kind of regulatory, legislative, or industry-wide hurdle hitting autonomous cars in a few years, or smart home technologies, or healthcare products. That would be a much bigger deal. Let this be a learning moment for every company developing smart products.

Pictured: Bluesmart’s smart suitcase

Conclusion: IoT technologies, including smart luggage, are going to keep getting better and cooler BUT product managers at tech startups (especially consumer-facing ones) are going to have to learn to be more diligent with their market research and the nurturing of industry partnerships, or these kinds of problems will keep derailing otherwise perfectly good ideas.

One simple solution for this corner of the startup scene might be to hire more seasoned product development professionals from other industries instead of expecting talented but relatively inexperienced young project managers to stumble through this process all by themselves. Vision and imagination are great, but the right measure of experience thrown into the mix might just make all the difference in the world. Food for thought.



About the Author

Olivier Blanchard has extensive experience managing product innovation, technology adoption, digital integration, and change management for industry leaders in the B2B, B2C, B2G sectors, and the IT channel. His passion is helping decision-makers and their organizations understand the many risks and opportunities of technology-driven disruption, and leverage innovation to build stronger, better, more competitive companies.  Read Full Bio.