Locator/Tracker Devices..Keeping Children Safe
Most of us are familiar with GPS navigation, and understand that our smart phones know where we are at all times (even if that knowledge makes us a little nervous sometimes). A lot of us don’t know exactly how that works, though.
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A GPS locator works essentially like a GPS navigator, it just displays the location data differently. The Global Positioning System is a network of satellites in orbit around the Earth. There are so many up there that there will be three or more ‘visible’ from any point on the ground at any time of day or night. It is important that there be at least three, because the computer in your navigation or locator device needs to hear three or more signals to triangulate its position. A navigation device displays this data on a screen, and uses it to get you where you need to be. A locator sends the data to another device, or stores it in memory for later use.
Broadly speaking, GPS locators or tracking devices come in three flavours: Data Pullers, Data Pushers, and Data Loggers.
A GPS data logger records the position of the device (and, one assumes, the subject being tracked) every so many minutes and stores the data for later access. The location data can be downloaded and displayed elsewhere, either wirelessly, via memory card, or a USB connection. Many cameras have this capability, and add the location data as a ‘geotag’ to the pictures as you take them.
These devices are not useful for finding a lost child, for example, as they cannot communicate their location to a user remotely. They merely tell you where the device has been.
Most GPS tracking units are data pushers, or GPS beacons. These devices send their location data to a specific device or IP address regularly, where it can be stored for later use or displayed in real time. If you have a smart phone, it has this capability, though you may have it turned off. Smart phones can also operate as data loggers with the right apps.
These devices are used to find missing people (via police or access to their GPS data), to track and analyse the locations of commercial vehicles, and even to locate stolen cars. The auto insurance industry calls this technology ‘telematics 2.0’.
Data pusher tracking devices are often used to allow parents or other care givers to locate children, vulnerable elderly people, or some others. While superficially similar to police-mandated GPS tracking of house arrest subjects, this kind of tracking is almost always voluntary, and is dependent on the subject willingly carrying the tracking device. They are usually accurate to 5 or 10 meters, which is quite good enough for finding a lost child or adult.
Many of these devices can do more than just report the subject’s location. Commonly the wearer of such a device can use it to signal for help, or to make a telephone call or send a standard text message to a specific individual or to any phone, depending on the device and how it is set up.
Many of the latest generations of ‘smart watches’ have tracking, navigation, and location apps, and several have been designed specifically to allow parents to locate children wearing the devices, and to allow those children to call or text for help if needed.
Lastly, some GPS locators are data pullers, or GPS transponders. A data puller does not regularly report or record its location, but can be queried by another device, and will respond by sending its current location. These devices are uncommon, but have seen some use in computers and smart phones running GPSD anti-theft programs or apps.
The near future
Experts predict that the ‘enhanced people locator’ industry will see 70 million users across Europe and North America combined by 2016. Another 50 million people have already downloaded just one of the most popular smart phone locator apps, and numbers are expected to increase.
Advanced features already on the market but not yet ubiquitous include the ability to set pre-programmed boundaries for a device, and have it notify the user or perform some other action of the line is crossed.
So, are we going completely ‘big brother’ with this? It’s hard to say. We are moving into a time where anything of great value will be locatable by one or more people in authority, and hackers besides. This is both eerie and comforting, depending on whether you are imagining being tracked, or losing an important item. Many proponents say that if you can track a stolen car or a lost cell phone, aren’t your kids even more important? Opponents say this is taking ‘helicopter mom’ syndrome to a new extreme. The market seems to have spoken, though, and these devices are available to all and sundry. Just try to be ethical about how you use them.
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