learn to track

Tracking technologies: From GPS tracking to GSM mobile tracking to GLONASS

There are as many reasons to choose to track somebody or something as there are users. For a normal user using tracking technologies might be a way to know and see where relatives and friends are or to track a vehicle and its route history. While for companies tracking services can be an even important tool in managing the organization by for example mobilizing human capital or resources – example of its uses is documented by taxi fleets, logistics firm and construction companies.

There are a multitude of technologies that let you track both people and things. Below we will discuss those that are readily available and most popular for the mainstream audience.

GPS mobile and device tracking

GPS (Global positioning system) is a satellite-based positioning service, originally conceived by the US military. A GPS-device receives signals from three to four satellites and can calculate the distance between the satellites which in turn calculates the trackers location.

For what it can do, a GPS-tracker today is a quite inexpensive investment. You can get a GPS tracker anywhere from just 50 pounds to a few hundred that can give you very high precision on accuracy, sometimes almost pin-point. Accuracy is usually between 5-10 meters give and take in good conditions, and in less than optimal conditions (like bad weather and winds) it can deviate by about 50-100 meters.

The disadvantage with GPS is that you need good reception and direct contact with GPS-satellites in order for it to work properly. This means that without additional antennas it will not work well indoors.

This also applies to today’s smartphones which by default have a GPS receiver built in.

It is possible to further improve the accuracy with DGPS (Differential GPS), but then it will require special type of GPS-tracker that can receive signals from stationary GPS masts. These earth bound GPS-masts can in turn by using their own location calculate errors in satellite positioning and send that data for corrections to the GPS-tracker – which in turn improves accuracy. Accuracy for a DGPS can be as good as 1-5 meters give and take.

Tracing a mobile phone with GSM technology

One completely different way to track people and things is to use ordinary mobile phones. In general this works in the way that the GSM telephony network in theory always knows where your and other peoples mobile phones are, in other words all UK mobile phone operators have access to this data (however, there are strict regulations governing who can locate which mobile and a consent system). By requesting the location via an interface in a service such as Lociloci one can find out the location of a mobile phone.

No special mobile device is required as these services use the SIM-card to be able to locate the position. As long as there is coverage and the mobile is turned on, you can track that mobile phone anywhere within the UK – even indoors.

The major disadvantage with GSM mobile tracking technology is in general the significantly worse accuracy on location than with GPS technology. This is mostly true for those that want to located someone in the less densely populated areas, where the telephone masts are farther apart. It is actually the more masts there are in a area, the better accuracy you will receive. In urban areas you can expect accuracy for a position somewhere between +-25-300 meters, while in rural areas it can be as far off as several kilometers.

To compensate for poor accuracy, operators are constantly working in improving their technology and thus communications platforms which will definitively improve the quality of locations over time.

Other Technologies for tracking: GLONASS and GALILEO

There are also other systems for tracking – here are a few examples:

  • GLONASS is a Russian system similar that to the GPS that is run by the Russian defense. Although using satellite technology for positioning like GPS, GLONASS have satellites orbiting in different tracks than with GPS – giving much better accuracy if you are close to the poles. Unfortunately it is more difficult to get your hands on a tracking receiver for the GLONASS-system than for GPS.
  • GALILEO is a European alternative to GPS which is under development and is expected to be completed in 2019. Its aim is to be a free service and provide much improved location accuracy than GPS, GSM or GLONASS.
James Craig

James Craig

James Craig currently lives in Birmingham, UK, and is a telecommunication expert with a keen interest in the latest app developments within VoIP and mobile phone tracking.


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