What is a GPS Tracking Device?

199What is GPS tracking and how would I want to use it?
In short, the Global Positioning System (GPS) is a series of US owned and operated satellites which circle the earth and send one-way signals (back to the earth) providing information on position, navigation, and timing. The GPS devices which consumers can purchase decipher this data so that one can determine their GPS coordinates, or location (along with a bearing and the time).

GPS tracking simply adds a step to this process by recording the location so that one can determine where the device is located (or has been).

GPS Tracking has become more common and used in a variety of deployments. Vehicle tracking is a great example as many delivery, installation, and packaging companies have a need to see where their trucks are located at a given time. Consider the following example: your cable TV goes out of service so you call the company to request a repair person. With GPS tracking, a dispatcher could easily locate a service vehicle near you, call the technician, and request they stop in after their current job.

We now have the ability to use this same technology on a personal level and the ideas are unlimited: tracking vehicles, children, pets, boats, assets, equipment, valuables, elderly, cargo, motorcycles, planes, RV’s, ATV’s, or trucks. If it can move, it can be tracked!

What types of GPS tracking exist?
There are two types of GPS tracking devices on the market. We’ll first cover the “Historical” GPS tracking devices. These units are similar to a simple GPS device, however, they have a recorder built in which records the location of the device (at certain intervals). So, one could place a Historical GPS tracking unit on top of a vehicle, wait for its return, remove the GPS tracking unit, and then analyze the data to see where the device has been, how fast it traveled, how long it was stationary at its different locations, etc. These units are usually lower in cost and require no monthly fees.

The other type of GPS devices are “Real Time” GPS tracking units. These allow one to instantly see the location of the GPS tracking device. Instead of having a recording device like the Historical GPS tracking devices, they have a built in transmitter that sends the GPS location information back to a central computer. As an end user, you’re able to login to a computer and track the GPS device in real time. How is this data being sent back? Over the cellular phone network. This is why monthly service fees are associated with Real Time GPS tracking devices. Just like your cell phone, there are limitations to a real time GPS tracking unit. If it doesn’t have cellular service, then it can’t send information back to you.

If you have an idea of where the device might be headed, you can ask about which cellular provider will be providing the service to the GPS device you’re looking at. Based on this information, you can go to the cellular provider’s website and look up coverage maps. Remote areas far from civilization can be problematic, along with underground caves. However, if a device goes out of cellular network coverage and then returns into coverage, tracking will resume. Some devices will even send post-data so that you can see where it went while out of cellular coverage.

Are threre any free GPS tracking options available?
Rarely is something free, but if you already have a mobile phone capable of supporting the latest Google Maps software funcionality, you might be able to experiment with a GPS tracking application. Google Maps works on a variety of mobile phones, and offers location assistance on phones that don’t even have an integrated GPS chip! How do they do it? They use cellular towers to triangulate your approximate location (within a 1000 meter circle). All newer mobile phones made are required to have this basic ability for 911 location requirements. Some phones also have an integrated GPS chip, which mobile programs (such as Google Maps) can take advantage of to locate your precise location. However, GPS alone can sometimes take a long time to calculate your exact whereabouts, so phones with integrated GPS can use the above “polling the network” option to speed things up, which is referred to A-GPS (or assisted GPS).

Google Maps has added a new feature called Google Latitude to their mapping software. This feature enables those coordinates calculated on your phone (that show where you are) to be uploaded to the Google Latitude service. This is the key to any tracking or location service, the ability to access the location data from a remote point. While Google Latitude is primarily designed for you and your friends to see each other’s whereabouts, this could possibly be used to track something. Simply activate Google Maps on a phone, enable the Latitude feature to share the location, then you can pull up the location of the phone from a web browser.

However, there are several drawbacks to this: 1) you lose the use of your phone, 2) your phone’s battery can drain rather quickly when using the GPS functionality, 3) you incur data usage rates, and 4) your phone wasn’t really designed for this.

Consider what you want or need to track and how quickly you need the data to determine the type of GPS tracking unit that is best for your needs.