Remote GPS tracking system – the one location platform to rule them all?

GPS trackers are always interesting because they’re so versatile. Location-based services have exploded in the last couple of years, and are poised for more growth as we get further into the 2010′s. At the heart of all of these services is a GPS tracker, and a method of transmitting position data to a server, where a provider (or hacker) can do something useful with it.

In the same vein as the previous open source tracker from DSS Circuits (which seems to have shipped and posted source code on GitHub, hurray for successful Kickstarter projects), there is a new kid on the block looking to create an entire open source tracking platform.

The i.AM (Intelligent Asset Management) GPS tracking system from WRD Systems is also looking for some crowdfunding love. It includes plans for an open source tracking device, a desktop application and mobile apps to aggregate and organize tracker data. The company needs a healthy chunk of change to finish hardware and software development, plus do an initial production run.

The hardware looks small and clean, with an integrated GSM/GPS module and not a lot of extraneous components. It’s powered by an ATTiny 2313 and a SIMCOM SIM908C for tracking and transmitting. The software we have some questions about – why make a desktop app when you could accomplish the same thing with a web service? Hosting costs wouldn’t be too high, and it’s much more accessible, easier to integrate the data with other applications, or incorporate community improvements. Desktop just feels rather… 2004-ish. Also, while not unique to this project, we’d like to see these creators open up more of their development before the project gets made. It’s always difficult to show off a work in progress, but by taking feedback early and often, the end result is a product that is more aligned with users’ needs and wants.

The team and project seem to have a solid technical foundation, so it’s reasonable to assume that the core rewards will get filled. Interestingly, the Kickstarter page mentions collaboration with other makers of OSS trackers, including the DSS product. A unified platform for all manner of tracking devices would be a very interesting play, something a la Electric Imp or Cosm for the GPS world. Again, that would seem to necessitate a web platform, but we’ll be watching to see how this one turns out.

4 thoughts on “Remote GPS tracking system – the one location platform to rule them all?

  1. Hi.

    I’m one of the developers. It’s great to see our project featured here! Below is a somewhat long post which I hope will answer the questions raised in the article.

    First: why a desktop app? If we look at the current tracking platforms available, they mostly use web applications as suggested in the article. This comes at a disadvantage that the end user will need to deal with subscriptions (free or mostly paid), and would have all their tracking data at the mercy of a third party. Should that third party disappear for some reason (say, bankruptcy) all the data would be gone. Not only that, but having potentially sensitive information on a third party server is not a good idea (that’s the security researcher in me talking).

    Of course, we could have developed a web application fully Open Source, which people can either install on their own dedicated server or on a shared hosting. Running it at a server at home would be redundant, since you’d duplicate the desktop app. The reasons we didn’t go this path are among others the goal of being able to use this tracker in places where you might not have Internet available to begin with. SMS will work in places where even normal calls don’t go through, let alone 3G. This also automatically means that any server used needs to be able to use a hardware attachment anyway in order to receive the SMS traffic – a GSM modem. I don’t think you’ll be able to find a VPS that can do that. This suddenly makes the whole thing more cumbersome. You could go with an online service that allows incoming SMS over the internet, but this becomes expensive in its own right. In combination with pre-paid SIM cards, this tracker doesn’t not incur any fees if you don’t use it. With services like Telna (http://www.telnamobile.com/) in the US, you can send 1000 SMS per month for $20 a YEAR.

    Also, some of us really do like to be able to run applications on the PC we spent good money on instead of just rendering websites :-)

    Regarding opening up some of the development we’ve done, we’re open to suggestions. Would releasing a demo of the application be helpful? What else can we do? We gladly hear suggestions from your readers!

    Lastly (don’t want to make this too long), the amount of funding we’re looking for, we know it’s a lot… The reason for that amount is twofold:

    a) getting as much of the project developed in Europe and the States and not getting the cheapest Chinese components, PCB’s etc. This means higher cost. Furthermore, developing a product such as this (electronics!) means all kinds of rules and regulations with regard to EMC which the FCC and CE labels are for. Since this is intended to be a product, not a hobby project for ten people, these aspects incur a cost. Then, since some of these trackers will go into things like cars and trucks, we need to perform HALT testing (Highly Accelerated Life Test) to ensure proper product life time.

    We intend to make sure that the electronics we make can be returned and recycled properly at their end of life. We want to make sure that materials and components used do not contain conflict minerals (such as Tantalium) if this can be prevented. This can (and will) lead to higher cost.

    b) to be able to hire a fresh graduate or two to help them get involved Open Source and project development, with the idea to bring a few possible job openings sooner than later. The current economy needs it, but hiring people right now without this project funding is impossible for us.

    All these aspects above are part of the core WRD philosophy.

    If you have any questions or remarks, don’t hesitation to post them here or if you prefer, contact me personally at johan.dams(at)wrdsystems.co.uk.

    Johan.

    • Hi Johan,

      Thanks for the response and further detail. We can understand your design decisions, even if they wouldn’t have been our primary choices.

      A few comments:

      - A web app doesn’t necessarily mean a subscription fee. Many services operate on ad revenue, through user generosity, or through a tangential business model that’s enabled by the traffic generated by their main purpose. Plus, in our experience, web applications encourage a great deal more support from the OSS community, because they can immediately see the impact of discussion, commits, and bug fixes, and can immediately impact the entire user base with approved changes, rather than whoever decides to download or upgrade to the latest version.

      It also doesn’t mean that data is siloed or exists only in the cloud. Many services allow users to backup their profiles and download their generated data in a standardized format (MapMyRun, for one LBS example). Many also allow offline interaction, only checking into the server to sync or utilize features that aren’t available locally (i.e. EverNote). If EverNote went bankrupt tomorrow, I would be disappointed, but my data could be exported, then imported to OneNote or any other competing service.

      The security argument is a valid one, although you could also argue that many companies put more effort into securing their servers than end users put into securing their personal computers, which can still be compromised by a virus or malicious intruder. I’m not an expert, so I will defer on that question.

      Finally, a question – if you don’t plan on routing any of the SMS communication through the internet, will PC users be required to purchase a standalone GSM modem to use the product?

      In any case, we wish you luck with the fundraising and further development.

      • Hi.

        The GSM modem for the PC will be included in the final package. While this may seem as an extra expense, we are able to secure large quantities of the modems which keeps the price down (<$20).

        I realize that web apps come in all shapes and form, and as you said, it doesn't necessarily come with a subscription fee. However, it still means people need a server to run it on, and an internet connection to track the object. Companies are moving more and more to cloud based servers instead of running their own. Furthermore, we offer the ability to track an object in reference to your own position with the Android application. This means you can follow an asset while on the move. If you rely on a 3G connection, you'd face too many instances where you would have no internet coverage.

        As someone who wrote quite a lot of Linux kernel and general application code, my opinion on OSS development is probably different than yours. I'm mostly coming from the embedded world and not the web application world, so that probably has a large impact on the design decisions we made.

        Thanks for the interesting discussion! Glad to see some tech sites still discuss technology and aren't just a big marketing front.

        Johan.

        • Hi.

          Replying to myself… if you don’t want to use a GSM modem, you can use an Internet service like https://www.tropo.com for incoming and outgoing SMS. This is currently in development and should be done by Kickstarter project funding deadline. We will also support others; Clickatell is already supported for outgoing SMS.

          Johan.

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