Are BLE Beacons Allowed on Aircraft?
Publication date: 2020-06-23
Last update: 2020-06-23
Author: Victor Celer
A BLE beacon is a low-power Bluetooth device. Typically it is equipped with an internal battery. One common use case consists in assisting with baggage tracking at airports and other terminals. Therefore, it's important to understand the restrictions carrying this kind of devices inside your baggage. Currently there are 2 known restrictions. The first one has to do with the type of internal battery and the second one is related to radio interference. Beware that the airlines can impose additional restrictions and the regulations can change anytime!
The FAA restricts the types of batteries allowed inside checked and carry-on baggage. Since 2018, metallic Lithium and Lithium-Ion batteries inside checked baggage are limited to a rating of 100 watt-hours (Wh). This is due to the small risk of Lithium overheating and catching fire.
Let's suppose that our beacon device has a coin-cell Lithium-Ion battery. Let's look into the specifications. If the rating in watt-hours is not specified, it can be computed by multiplying the nominal capacity in Amp-hours by the nominal voltage. For example, for the CR2477:
|Nominal capacity:||1000 mAh|
|Nominal voltage:||3 V|
Let's divide the mAh by 1000 to get the capacity in Amp-hours (Ah), then multiply by the voltage:
1000 mAh / 1000 * 3V = 3 Wh
3 Wh is less than 100 Wh. Therefore, this battery is fine.
Most beacons use metallic Lithium or Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) batteries within the allowed range. The main difference is that metallic Lithium batteries are disposable, while the Lithium-Ion batteries are rechargeable. However, checking the specifications is always a good practice. Some beacons use AAA batteries, which are allowed as well.
From the FAA point of view a BLE beacon is considered a Portable Electronic Device (PED). It must comply with FCC AC 91.21. Most BLE beacons are FCC certified. In fact, many airlines are already using this kind of devices for baggage tracking.
Some beacon manufacturers feature airplane mode to ensure compatibility with the FCC restrictions.
However, the FCC certification and even the availability of airplane mode doesn't guarantee that a specific airline will not ask you to turn off the BLE beacon. Currently this is very unlikely, but possible.
The airline has the final word. From the technical point of view a BLE beacon is airplane-safe if it uses an internal battery < 100 Wh and the device is FCC certified. Most BLE beacons do comply with both rules.