Fighting theft, loss and laziness with a ping: GPS devices track more than just cars

TRAVERSE CITY – Last winter was a great one for snowmobilers – even the ones running from the law. BlueSky Rentals of Traverse City had three of their rental snowmobiles stolen and though they were eventually recovered, the damage done by the thieves and the month the sleds spent out of commission cost owner Jamie Bush plenty. The crime set him back as much as $4,000 he estimated – an expense that could have been mitigated if the machines had been equipped with a GPS tracking device.

With five locations on East Bay renting everything from boats, Jet Skis, and the aforementioned snowmobiles, Bush said he uses security cameras but is considering equipping some of his rentals with GPS tracking devices "if it's cost effective."

According to Jensen Kurtz of Kurtz Car Stereo in Traverse City, the cost of both the GPS unit and the monthly service to use it has come down dramatically in recent months. The technology is also seeing a much broader application than when it was first released several years ago as a navigational aid or car theft deterrent. Units start at $350; the monitoring service costs $17 a month. Lower powered devices can be used to monitor large equipment that remains stationary for long periods, such as backhoes and bulldozers,

"Snowplow companies use them to monitor their drivers," said Kurtz. "Banks put them on ATM machines in the larger cities. Builders put them on construction equipment, trucking companies put them on their tractor trailers, and people even put them on their generators and on their boats."

At Grand Bay Marine, sales manager David Keil said he's had a few customers request the units and added that larger boats can come equipped with the technology right from the factory. Though they work well on land, the uninterrupted atmosphere above large bodies of water are particularly amenable to the system.

Here's how they work:

GPS receivers utilize a series of GPS, or Global Positioning System, satellites embedded with U.S. Naval Academy atomic time clocks. The various satellites send out a signal, or "ping," which is picked up by the receiver and can be simultaneously downloaded onto a web site in real time, tracking the receiver's location with pinpoint accuracy. The devices can track the location of something, such as a plow truck, but can also tell the owner when the vehicle is turned on and when it's turned off, when it's idling, where the plow was set down and picked up, when the doors open and close.

The convergence of science, business, and government has led some to label the technology "big brother" – an idea Jensen mocks.

"This is a way for businesses to keep track of their valuable equipment, and off-site employers to monitor their employees, nothing more. Put these units in your fleet and it's your new time clock. It's like you're there, sitting right next to the guys working for you."

Recent local adopters of the technology include Munson Hospital and Pro Maintenance, a property management company. Since Traverse City has relatively low crime, Kurtz said most businesses here use the devices to monitor the productivity of their employees as opposed to theft deterrence, though both uses are valid, especially now. Their best use, however, is not to catch someone doing something wrong, but to create an environment where people are naturally doing things right.

"I told the guys about them, I explained what was going on up front," said John Rollert, owner of Pro Maintenance, which has the devices installed on two company trucks. "I'm able to track my routes, know how long we're on a job, and calculate what I call 'windshield time.' They've made me more efficient, and they even send me an email when I need to have the tires rotated or the oil changed. They've saved me sleep, I can tell you that." BN

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