And if not, how do they know where they are?
Wondering do AirTags have GPS? Don’t worry, it’s actually a common question. After all, an AirTag allows you to track the item it’s attached to and locate it on a map. That happens to be exactly what the GPS built into an iPhone allows for too.
But do AirTags actually have GPS? Read on…
What Is GPS?
GPS is short for the global positioning system. It’s what allows a device – be it a smartphone or a car’s computer system – to know where it is in the world. While a GPS device is earthbound, GPS works because of an array of satellites in the sky and some very complicated and precise math.
While scholarly technical books could be written on GPS because it is so technically complex, what the average consumer needs to know is without GPS our smartphone wouldn’t be so smart. After all, just think of all the apps that use your location data: Uber, maps, weather app, even messaging apps do. Without GPS none of these apps would be possible to as precise a level as they are now.
AirTags And GPS
So surely an AirTag has GPS, right? No, not so. An AirTag has no GPS receiver. It does not use any kind of GPS at all. If it did, the AirTag would likely be much larger – or at least thicker – to hold the GPS component, and its battery would last much shorter a time than it does now.
Currently, the AirTag gets about a year of battery power off a single coin cell battery. This length of battery life wouldn’t be possible with a GPS chip inside.
So How Do AirTags Know Where They Are?
OK, if an AirTag doesn’t have GPS, how does it know where in the world it is – and more importantly, how are you able to see it on a map?
The AirTag’s ability to send you its location is thanks to Bluetooth and Apple’s Find My network.
First, the Bluetooth portion: every AirTag has a built-in Bluetooth chip that sends and receives a Bluetooth signal. This means it can receive commands via Bluetooth and send out data to other Bluetooth devices.
Now, Apple’s Find My network: Apple’s Find My network is a network that is built upon a constellation of devices – hundred of millions of Apple devices all talking to each other via secure end-to-end encrypted means. They talk to each other via Bluetooth and other wireless signals, forming an invisible mesh across the world.
Your Apple device right now – no matter if it’s an iPhone or a MacBook – is part of that invisible mesh that forms the Find My network. There is no ability to opt-out or in, and there’s no way for you to see any data relayed on the Find My network that piggybacks off your Apple devices.
But this Find My network is how an AirTag can send its location back to you. The AirTag transmits its location across the Find My network, which then reaches your phone, which the AirTag is registered to via your iCloud account, and shows you its location on a map.
The Find My network and AirTags work together brilliantly – and the implementation is almost sci-fi in nature.
Do AirTags Have GPS?
Nope. AirTags do not have GPS. They relay their location over the Find My network, and do not need any kind of internet connection to work.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can AirTags track a car?
Sure. You can use an AirTag to track almost anything. However, AirTag’s aren’t great for real-time tracking.
Q: What to do if you find an AirTag?
You can scan the AirTag with any smartphone that has NFC to see a popup that will help you find its owner.
Q: How long do AirTags last?
The AirTag itself should last years provided you take care of it. As for the battery, the coin cell battery should last about a year before you need to replace it.
Apple expert and novelist, Michael Grothaus has been covering tech on KnowYourMobile for the best part of 10 years. Prior to this, he worked at Apple. And before that, he was a film journalist. Michael is a published author; his book Epiphany Jones was voted as one of the best novels about Hollywood by Entertainment Weekly. Michael is also a writer at other publications including VICE and Fast Company.