From the Wilderness to Indoors: The Evolution of GPS Tracking From 2004 to 2018

Rewind: The Wildfires of 2004

In the summer of 2004, as wildfires swept through the American West, a firefighter buddy called asking what I knew about Java and satellites. As a computer science student, Java – both coffee and the programming language – was all too familiar to me. I wasn’t sure what Java and firefighting had to do with satellites, but I was intrigued.

My buddy insisted his GPS units were connected to a satellite network and could report their position through the internet. I asserted that GPS only worked one-way and it was impossible to “talk back” to the GPS network, let alone the internet. His persistence, however, convinced me he was onto something new and real that I didn’t quite grasp.

I sensed something exciting and maybe even magical was in the works. I still couldn’t piece together how a GPS receiver, like the ancient Magellan unit we used for hunting and fishing, could “report its position”. But I knew I needed to be a part of an infant technology that would eventually change the way many industries operate.

But First, Let’s Rewind Even Further to the Late 1990’s

In the late 1990’s, the world watched in amazement as Iridium and Globalstar launched the first truly global satellite networks for commercial use. Living in Montana, the thought of making a call or sending an SMS while outside of town or deep in the backcountry felt like science fiction.

In May 2000, between jogging and Big Macs, President Clinton changed the future of GPS by directing the US government to disable GPS selective availability. This dramatically improved fix accuracies from “it’s somewhere in the neighborhood” to “it’s in that yard, right there”.

The stars had finally aligned and the technologies required to enable satellite-based GPS asset trackers were ready. Products launched that combined GPS receivers and satellite transmitters to finally provide an answer to the question many firefighters, oilfield service companies, and emergency response agencies had been asking on a daily and hourly basis — “Where’s my stuff?”

And Now, Back to the 2004 Wildfires

As the fires continued to rage, we opened garage bay doors to dusty and ash covered water tenders, crew rigs, and mobile field offices and began to affix field equipment with the first generation asset trackers enabled by the technology unlocked just a few years ago. After the tracking devices had been installed, we sat with crew captains to train them on software that provided real time visibility to asset deployment and utilization.

The solution was a true game changer. Gone were the days of wood paneled walls hung with whiteboards of crude hand sketched maps. Previously, Xs that marked where the crews and equipment were located could only be erased and redrawn when, and if, a voice radio report was made.

Now, commanders had accurate and reliable visibility of where their teams and field equipment were positioned. They could track and trace their every movement without direct communication with crew captains. Dry erase markers were abandoned and whiteboards replaced with projectors. Field operations became more efficient and less chaotic, while the safety of field workers had been vastly improved.

But We Still Had a Problem…

“Where’s my stuff?” could finally be answered for tagged assets parked outside where no metal roofs blocked radio signals above the skies of the wilderness. But assets inside shop bays with no view of the sky still had to be manually located. An unfortunate reality of GPS technology had reared its ugly head.

Throughout my career in satellite based tracking solutions, I’ve often had to reassure concerned asset managers that while indoors, satellite readings may fade, and you will not hear from the assets until they are re-deployed outside. The question of indoor location was not one that could be answered with technology. While the problem of solving indoor location never fully stunted the growth of the asset tracking industry, it was a definite ‘gotcha’ that took regular and patient education.

Fast Forward: 2018

Nearly a decade and a half later, after reminiscing with another firefighting buddy and discussing the latest state of the Internet of Things, I was as excited as I had been on that day in 2004 that kicked off my career in asset tracking.

A new star in the technology constellation had appeared — Bluetooth, and in particular, the Low Energy variant (BLE). Traditional Bluetooth had always been too power hungry to be considered for use in long life, battery powered asset trackers. However, the new BLE standard barely registered on the power meter and thus opened huge doors to a long sought after solution for indoor tracking.

Today, when working with asset managers and field support folk, I still extol the virtues of an unobstructed view of the sky and explain why the dots on a map fade when an asset is indoors. Physics hasn’t changed so a good sky view is still important for satellite communication. But no longer is it absolutely necessary for asset tracking.

By combining Geoforce’s revolutionary GT0 Compact Asset Tracker  and GT1 Global Asset Tracker  with our newly launched Geoforce Gateway, we have taken full advantage of BLE to finally answer the question, “Where’s my stuff?”, for assets that are INDOORS. The Geoforce Gateway lights up indoor coverage where satellite links are unable to penetrate. Dots on the map no longer fade and frustration with the inability to see indoor asset locations, like the whiteboards with smudged out X’s, are becoming a thing of the past.

Now when a crew captain asks the question, “Where’s my stuff?”, the answer can be, “It’s in the shop where you parked it for the winter.”

If the last decade of evolution is an indicator, I can’t wait to see where GPS and satellite technology leads in the next decade!

Based in our Bozeman, Montana R&D office, Troy Lanes  is Geoforce’s Director of Hardware Development. Prior to joining Geoforce in 2013, Troy served in development and engineering roles at several M2M and satellite technology leaders, including OrbitOne and Numerex.