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GPS an important tool in keeping an eye on assets and people

When a brand-new snowplow, worth $300,000, was stolen in the middle of the night, the owner was able to pinpoint its exact location to police using a GPS tracking device. Inadvertently, he also uncovered an auto-theft ring in Sarnia, Ont.




September 14, 2006
By Vawn Himmelsbach

Topics

Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system
originally developed by the U.S. Department of Defense for military
purposes. It works in any weather, anywhere in the world.

This
technology is emerging as an important tool in an organization’s
security arsenal. Tracking devices use data from GPS satellites to
determine the location of a person or vehicle, as well as their speed
and direction of travel.

Vince Poloniato sees huge potential for
GPS, so he started up Solutions Into Motion, a Canadian company based
in Ancaster, Ont., that develops monitoring tools with cell phones, GPS
and the Web. The company’s Trackem product — which can be used on a
handset, BlackBerry or device installed in a vehicle — can track a
vehicle’s location and speed, and sends out an alert when the vehicle
is breaking speed limits or is in unapproved areas.

“It reaches
out and constantly grabs my coordinates and puts a date-time stamp on
that,” says Poloniato, president of Solutions Into Motion.

There
are some privacy concerns over the use of tracking technology, but the
benefits could outweigh these concerns. It’s expected that all
cellphones and vehicles will come equipped with GPS, helping to locate
missing people and stolen vehicles. It could even relegate the
high-speed police chase to the realm of Hollywood movies, and we may
start to see GPS embedded in clothing, watches and other personal
items. “You’re going to see everything from fobs to jackets that have
GPS in them,” says Poloniato.

Eventually, the application won’t
reside on the device, he said, but on a server-based platform. Known as
AGPS, or Assisted GPS, this allows a device to use cellular coverage as
an immediate location method.

Cellphones with embedded GPS
engines are being developed that would allow for wireless
location-based services — and would be particularly useful in urban
areas where users are under cover or even indoors. AGPS is faster than
GPS, but dependent on cellular coverage.

“Then we’re really
going to see a plethora of interesting technologies,” says Poloniato.
One possible scenario is a digestible “fob” or security token. An oil
worker travelling to the Middle East or Africa, for example, may have
concerns about being kidnapped. That person may, in the not-so-distant
future, be able to swallow a digestible fob so his or her whereabouts
could be tracked — making it easy to pinpoint kidnappers.

Sound
like science fiction? “It’s not really that far out there,” says
Poloniato. “As soon as we become less dependent on the device itself to
do all the work and use all the battery power, we’re really going to
see a massive migration.” Trackem uses both interfaces, so if the GPS
signal is lost, a cell tower can provide a location estimate.

Police
are already using the technology. But while it’s great to have GPS on
board, says Poloniato, it’s even better to have it in hand, should
there be a foot pursuit and an officer is several blocks away from the
vehicle. “The police force, they want this, but now they also want to
be able to have imaging with camera phones,” he says, “and that’s
coming.”

He’s investigating a technology called GeoSnapper,
where a user snaps a photo and gets real-time information on where he
or she is through photo identification.

But having the ability
to track employees is not only for oil workers in Nigeria. Alberta is
the first province to pass work-alone legislation, due to the fact it
has such a highly mobile workforce in industries such as mining, oil
and gas. Under provincial legislation, employers are now responsible
for checking in with their mobile workers at least every two hours —
and GPS could be an easy way to do that.

Employers can also use
GPS to track vehicles or other assets. “We sell a lot to construction
people,” says Gilbert Walz, co-owner of Security Concepts, which
manufactures WorldTracker GPS tracking devices. “A lot of contractors
buy them and put the trackers on appliances at construction sites.”

The
devices themselves are tiny and can be easily concealed, he added. For
example, if a device is installed in a vehicle and that vehicle moves
when it’s not supposed to, the device will send a text message to the
owner or call up to five phones. The owner can then use the Internet to
track the vehicle or get the coordinates over his cellphone.

The
owner can also put a “geo-fence” around a particular area, such as a
building or parking lot. If a person or vehicle goes outside of that
geo-fence, the device sends an alert to the owner.

One of
Poloniato’s customers, for example, owns a fleet of trucks and set a
geo-fence around his facility. Soon afterward, he received an alert in
the middle of the night that one of his trucks had crossed the
geo-fence. He immediately called the police. When the police tracked
down the vehicle, it was discovered that an employee had been secretly
making deliveries on the side, one night a week, for years — possibly
as long as 10 years.
In another case, a transportation company was
penalized $400 for allegedly failing to meet a crane company at an
appointed drop site. However, the company was able to use GPS
technology to prove they were, in fact, there.

“People can see
where their assets are now,” says Walz. “They can also see where they
were historically speaking, [because] they can log data.” The
WorldTracker SMS is capable of recording data every two minutes, while
the new version will update data every 15 seconds. “Police like that,
investigators like that, people who have expensive products like that,”
he says. “Two minutes can be a lot of time.”

Tom Leung, owner of
A-Plus Gardening Supplies in Vancouver, has just started selling GPS
tracking devices alongside everything from furniture to toilet paper
because he’s seeing so much interest in the technology.
Skiers go
missing every year at B.C.’s ski resorts, he says. “If they have a unit
like this on them, instead of hundreds of people trying to search for
that missing person, all you have to do is go on the computer and
locate them right away and you save a life.” The device has a button
that, when pressed, will send out an alert that you’re in trouble — and
send out your coordinates to within 50 feet.

In one incident this summer, a high-speed police chase in Vancouver resulted in the death of a pedestrian.

With
GPS tracking, the police could let the vehicle go and continue tracking
it, says Leung, and catch the perpetrators after they stop. And this
could eliminate dangerous high-speed police chases.

The benefits
are numerous, from monitoring hazardous materials to keeping track of
sexual offenders. The applications are only limited by the imagination
— and Canada’s privacy legislation.

Vawn Himmelsbach is a Toronto-based freelance writer.


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