The ability to track a vehicle, person, pet, or piece of property with GPS was once a technically difficult and costly process. But GPS tracking is now very accessible to consumers, for a wide range of purposes. And like so much other technology, GPS tracking has its pros and cons, and ethical considerations, as well. Let's take a look at how it works, and which type of device is best suited for each purpose.
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is made possible by a group of satellites in orbit around the earth orbit that transmit precise signals, allowing GPS receivers to calculate and display accurate location, speed, and time information to the user.
By capturing the signals from three or more satellites (among a constellation of 31 satellites available), GPS receivers are able to use the principle of trilateration to pinpoint a location.
With the addition of computing power, and data stored in memory such as road maps, points of interest, topographic information, and much more, GPS receivers are able to convert location, speed, and time information into a useful display format. GPS data may also be fed to a website for real-time location mapping.
GPS tracking takes the normal functions of a GPS device a step further, by either capturing and storing position data within internal memory for retrieval later, or by transmitting location data in real time via the same cellular data network used by mobile phones.
So, to sum up how a GPS tracker works: It gathers, analyzes, and stores location data from weak GPS satellite signals, processes the location information, then saves it for review later, or transmits it in real time.
The need to capture satellite signals, and often, to get a signal to the cellular network, means that GPS tracking devices need to have access to the open sky. They don't work well indoors, or deeply positioned within a vehicle or boat, for example.
GPS tracking devices also need a power source. This most often comes in the form of a rechargeable internal lithium-ion battery. But many GPS tracking devices are also powered by tapping into the electrical system of a car, boat, etc.
Types of GPS Tracking Devices
The most common way to GPS track is likely the smartphone. Athletes and backpackers, for example, use apps to track their own time, speed, distance, and location. Other apps, such as the Family Tracker, are designed simply to help people keep track of each others' locations in real time. This can be great to have at an amusement park or ski area, for example. Other apps are designed to let a parent track a child (with the child's knowledge and consent) for safety and security.
Another class of consumer GPS tracking devices, such as the Garmin GTU 10 shown in the photo here, are meant to be all-purpose, stand-alone trackers. Waterproof, lightweight, and compact, this type of tracker may be placed in a car, boat, shipping container, commercial vehicle, you name it. The GTU 10, like many devices in this class, may also provide the position of the person or object in real time - you may literally watch the location on a website map.
There are also GPS tracking devices made specifically for pets. These collar-mountable devices are also matched with a web or smartphone app tracking service that lets you know when your pet has strayed outside of a geofence that you have established. There are also advanced tracking devices made for hunting dogs, such as the Garmin Astro, that are ruggedly made, and can keep track of multiple dogs at a time on a companion handheld GPS device.
Last but not least are commercial-grade GPS tracking devices that come matched with advanced software that can keep tabs on an entire fleet of trucks, for example. These are hard-wired into the vehicle's electrical system and built to withstand years of hard outdoor use.
There is a GPS tracker for nearly every purpose, and if you use common sense regarding respect for others' privacy and rights, they can enhance security, help you keep track of possessions, and keep your family or group together in busy public areas.