Tech that tracks your moves
- By Jennifer McAdams
- Nov 02, 2007
Thanks to location-aware technologies, state prosecutors might go to court carrying legal documents labeled with radio frequency identification tags, and no one back at the office would have to wonder what happened to those files.
RFID is one of several location-aware technologies that government officials are beginning to use in combination with text data to improve administrative operations, prevent fraud or implement new homeland security measures.
In addition to RFID, other location-aware technologies include Global Positioning System (GPS), cellular and Wi-Fi local-area network (LAN) options. They allow officials to monitor the whereabouts of just about anything that moves. When warfighters carry wireless communication devices, sophisticated systems that rely in part on Wi-Fi connections can track their movements. Cell phones and other devices equipped with GPS capabilities can help government officials allocate resources during crises.
The pervasiveness of mobile communications and the maturity of location-aware technologies have generated a wave of new civilian and military applications. But a dramatic drop in the technologies’ cost has also contributed to the growth. The price of RFID tags has fallen in three years from $2 per unit to today’s rate of about 20 cents. That price drop makes a huge difference for agencies interested in large deployments, such as the one under way at the Florida State Attorney’s Office, which wants to outfit about 125,000 criminal case files with RFID.
GPS prices have decreased, too. It now costs less than $2 to add GPS capability to a cell phone.
“All cellular devices in the very near future will have GPS capability built in,” said Dennis Bodson, director of telecommunications and sensor systems at the Institute for Defense and Homeland Security (IDHS), a research and development organization made up of representatives from government, industry and academia.
“This can be used as a primary means of position location, which will be critical to first responders.”
The primary location-aware infrastructure options are RFID, cellular/GPS and Wi-Fi.RFID
RFID relies on simple tags, or transponders, affixed to objects. RFID infrastructures use strategically placed antennas and radio waves to track the location of RFID tags within buildings, for example. In 2004, the State Attorney’s Office in Florida canceled plans to use bar coding to track criminal files, which were becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Instead, the office implemented an RFID system using paper-thin 1-inch by 4-inch RFID tags affixed to file folders. It tagged 18,000 felony files, which officials can track as they move those files to different locations in the office’s three-story building and in and out of local courthouses.
“Frankly, we used to misplace a lot of cases,” said Dan Zinn, the office’s chief information officer. “Everything was done manually, and there was no real tracking division or application in place.”
Now cases are assigned serial numbers that are programmed into passive RFID tags. The tags are then registered in a real-time location system designed by InnerWireless. The company’s Vision line features a location management platform that can aggregate data using a variety of location-tracking technology protocols. Readers are unobtrusively and strategically placed throughout Florida’s State Attorney’s Office facilities to track the tags.
“Users can immediately see a file’s location on a digital floor plan,” said Chris Click, InnerWireless’ vice president of marketing.
RFID applications represent one of the fastest growing segments of the blossoming location-aware market, said Marc Songini, a senior analyst at Nucleus Research. He said other location-based solutions are also catching on in government. “RFID alone poses a huge variety of applications, which include many military and law enforcement uses,” he said.
The Army is using RFID extensively in logistics operations, especially to avoid overstocking supplies, said Brian Clark, customer relationship executive at Unisys. “If a commander requires materiel to complete a mission, logistics officers are tempted to place orders immediately to ensure the availability of that materiel,” he said.
To help prevent redundant orders, Unisys helped the Army develop its RFID-based In-Transit Visibility system. RFID tags are affixed to large cargo containers or pallets, and readers or radio wave antennas, often referred to as interrogators, extract information from the tags.
“As [tags] pass within range of an RFID interrogator, a database is updated with the active tag ID, which determines the last known whereabouts of the materials,” Clark said.
The Army is not the only Defense Department service that is aggressively deploying RFID technology. “DOD has been pushing all of its vendors to tag their supplies with RFID tags so they can be tracked from the warehouse to the battlefield,” Songini said.GPS and cellular
By combining cellular communication devices with GPS technology, government agencies are creating powerful location-aware applications. GPS capabilities are integrated into cell phones or land mobile radio systems, both of which have become crucial supporters of the government’s mobile workforce, said William Hartwell, vice president of government markets at Motorola’s Symbol Technologies.
GPS is a component of many new applications. “GPS by itself only tells an individual where they are,” said Stacey Black, a vice president at AT&T’s wireless division. “But if you couple that with a two-way communications capability, then organizations know where all of their assets and people are. They can monitor and communicate with them in real time and provide dynamic location-aware and situational information.”
For example, homeland security officials in government and industry are combining cellular and GPS capabilities for an initiative dubbed Red Cell, an emergency alert system that first responders will use when dealing with incidents such as national security threats, Amber Alerts and hazardous material spills.
The system relies on cell phones with location-aware capabilities. “Red Cell is a concept for leveraging the existing cell phone infrastructure with a sensor network overlay to provide decision-makers with real-time alert and warning data,” Bodson said. “This will be done in a very surgical manner and involve selected personnel.” IDHS is working with American Systems on the Red Cell application.”
Enhanced 911 (E911) initiatives rely on location-aware technology to pinpoint cell phone callers’ locations. All cell phones sold in the United States are required to be location-detectable, said Allen Nogee, principal analyst for wireless technology at In-Stat. Some cellular network operators use GPS to do that, while others rely on different methods that comply with the mandate but offer less precise location capabilities, Nogee said.
The Federal Communications Commission issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to evaluate the viability and performance of E911 systems. FCC is interested in systems that can generate accurate location data.
TruePosition is one of many vendors that are developing E911 solutions. The company is depending on the combination of Uplink Time Difference of Arrival (U-TDOA) and Assisted-GPS to be an effective way to meet E911 needs. U-TDOA is a method of calculating the location of a transmitting cell phone by measuring the difference in time between when signals arrive at different receiver sites.
“We believe there is no other technological app roach that will meet FCC’s requirements,” said Brian Varano, senior market analyst at TruePosition.
New homeland security and law enforcement mapping applications often combine GPS and cellular functions. For example, the North Central Texas Fusion System, a data-sharing and analysis facility, uses GPS in conjunction with geographic software from MetaCarta. The Homeland Security Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FBI and other agencies support the system.
“With a geographic component, investigators now have not only viable information on gangs, drug runners, smugglers and hazardous situations but also the locations of criminal incidents pictured as icons on a map,” said Bari Lee, the system’s senior intelligence analyst. It is one of dozens of facilities that analyze data on potential homeland security threats.
Using the MetaCarta system, DHS agents in Texas and elsewhere can retrieve and display GPS data stored in any participating database, said Randy Ridley, vice president and general manager of MetaCarta’s Public Sector Division. GPS coordinates are useless unless all the associated data can be displayed, he said. “This goes not only for the latitude and longitude coordinates but for all of the information associated with a particular location,” he added.
Combining GPS and cellular functions can also help government agencies with more mundane tasks, such as tracking potholes. Transportation officials in New York City have adopted a system from TeleNav that lets them easily report street conditions, such as potholes or graffiti. Officials use their cell phones to download software that integrates GPS navigation data with administrative applications, such as time sheet reporting and online dispatching.
“Managers can send jobs via the Web site, track locations and speeds, and create customized forms while monitoring employees’ progress on job-related activity,” said Sal Dhanani, TeleNav’s co-founder and senior director of marketing.Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi is the trade name for wireless LAN equipment based on the 802.11 standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Wi-Fi is increasingly used in consumer settings for network and Internet connectivity for gaming and other electronic systems. It is used in corporate and government settings as an alternative to cable wiring for LANs.
“The federal government is beginning to more readily adopt 802.11 Wi-Fi networks, creating a broad platform for new applications, such as location-tracking systems,” said Tuomo Rutanen, vice president of business development at Ekahau.
The Ekahau Positioning Engine is an example of the type of Wi-Fi solutions now available. The real-time location system scans for the signal strength of Wi-Fi chips in personal digital assistants, computers, voice-over-Wi-Fi telephone handsets and other devices. Signal strength is translated into tracking data and transmitted to a server that hosts the engine. Rutanen said it uses calibration algorithms to estimate locations. The system is designed to track assets, people and inventory. It can also deliver location-based messages.
One advantage of Wi-Fi, compared with other location-aware technologies, is its ability to run on existing wireless infrastructures, said Stan Schatt, vice president of ABI Research. Organizations “can save enormous amounts of money by not having to purchase proprietary RFID readers,” he said.
However, RFID can provide more precise tracking capabilities than Wi-Fi, Schatt said. “Generally, you can locate an object within 10 feet or so [with Wi-Fi]. With some proprietary RFID systems using ultra-wideband technology, you can get within a foot or so. It really depends on what you are tracking and how accurate you need to be.”McAdams is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.