GPS has been considered the de facto standard for location tracking. Although still king, a few not-so-new technologies are joining the party to extend the functionality of LBS.
When introduced, location-based services were to fleet managers what VisiCalc was to accountants. This killer app eliminated the time-consuming need for “Where are you now?” conversations between drivers and dispatchers.
With GPS locators fixed on every vehicle, fleet managers could watch a real-time or near-real-time map of their entire fleet, usually connecting to the companys network via Wi-Fi technology. This ever-changing data continues to give them the information they need to make quick changes in routing, maximizing the efficiency of drivers and the entire fleet.
@Road Inc., of Fremont, Calif., has delivered LBS via GPS to transportation, distribution and field service companies since 1998.
“We provide the visibility as to where the mobile workers are,” said Joyce Tam, @Roads senior leader on the project management team.
Although GPS data is valuable, it is not always reliable, Tam said. High foliage, tall buildings and tunnels can delay or block a signal, making location tracking either inaccurate or unavailable. Even with the best always-on location information, its still a limited form of one-way communication.
Mobile businesses are far more complex. They require far more information, such as “Whats on the truck?” and “Just because I see the driver is at the drop-off point, did they actually do their job?”
Supplementing the capabilities of GPS and its imperfect reliability, a few companies are taking hold of some well-known technologies to expand the capabilities of LBS.
Closing Gaps—Cell Tower Networks
Since 2001, Autodesk inc., of San Rafael, Calif., has been in the location tracking business. When it started in 2001, two things were happening in the industry—the Federal Communications Commissions Enhanced 911 tracking requirement would soon turn every mobile phone into a location device, and mobile carriers were eagerly developing customer-enticing data services, said Sunit Lohtia, chief technology officer for Autodesk Location Services.
A shift in the LBS market was apparent, Lohtia said. What was traditionally a high-end transportation-only playground would soon be open for everyone, even consumers. Location technology was about to undergo a multifold expansion in capabilities. “Each and every app is going to be impacted by location,” projected Lohtia.
Unlike a fixed transponder on a truck, a mobile phone is a two-way device thats fixed to the individual and can transmit both voice and data to the network. “[With a mobile phone] youre turning each and every employee in your organization into a resource that you can manage based on their location,” Lohtia said.
In fact, Autodesks business service for carriers, Mobile Resource Manager, is just a derivation of MRM (mobile resource management)—the updated industry term that supplants the title and definition limitations of LBS.
-Based Services—Everywhere You Go”>
To improve its location tracking for mobile devices, Autodesk developed a cell-network-assisted GPS system. GPS is the preferred method because it is cheaper and traditionally more accurate.
But when the satellite signal is not available, carrier networks can rely on cell tower triangulation technologies such as AFLT (Advanced Forward Link Trilateration), EOTD (Enhanced Observed Time Difference), UTDOA (Uplink Time Difference of Arrival) and TDOA (Time Difference of Arrival).
Each technology, which operates on a different network, takes time/distance readings between the handset and three or more cell towers to approximately locate the signal-sending handset.
Although Lohtia said Autodesk tries to go out of its way to find a customers location wherever possible, constant reporting on a mobile employees whereabouts is not always necessary.
The accuracy and timeliness of location information depends on the application, Lohtia said. For a taxi dispatch service, for example, constant “real-time-accurate within a few meters” location information is extremely valuable.
But a consumer application that recommends a nearby restaurant does not need to be as accurate or timely. Such requests could be gathered on demand and be accurate down to a cell area. Shifting data demands depending on application lessens the need for constant requests making data traffic more manageable.
Ultimately, Autodesk wants to impact every application with location, Lohita said.
“Every action you take on your cell phone, location will become a part of it,” said Lohtia. “Itll be so transparent. People wont even know theyre using location-based services.”
Verizon Wireless newly released Traffic Connect Service may soon be the first consumer application to take advantage of Autodesks location technology. The traffic monitoring service sends text alerts to mobile phones when theres a traffic issue on the users commute.
The service does not currently track the phones location. Locations are predetermined by filling out a commute form with drive time and drive location on vtext.com. Although Verizon wouldnt confirm if theyll be using Autodesks technology, the two would seem to complement each other well.
Given the mobile carriers claim that the application is successful without Autodesks location technology, Doug Busk, associate director of messaging at Verizon Wireless, of Bedminster, N.J., said, “It goes to show that the strength of a location-based service is in the application itself as much as it is in knowing the users location at that exact time.”
While the location information was valuable, “They were looking to do more than just track them,” said David Almoslino, @Roads director of marketing communications.
Almoslino said he remembers customers asking such questions as “Can we monitor the service and maintenance and operation of the vehicle itself?” and “Can we manage the information flow in real time between these field technicians and headquarters?”
From these customer desires, @Road cranked up its offerings by converting simple GPS location devices into 802.11b hot spots. The new offering, @Road Mobile HotSpot, turns a trackable truck into a wireless network.
This coupling of GPS with a wireless WAN opens up endless possibilities. Applications you run on your network can reach your field force wherever they are. Theres no need to be tethered to the truck. Technicians can be in the customers location and see what they have. With a mobile information device such as a PDA, they can request information such as supplies or process orders.
“They become a more sophisticated representative of the company there on the spot,” said Almoslino.
“That could translate into increased productivity—one more job thats going to get done in the field. That really translates into real revenue,” said Tam.
Although Autodesk and @Road use different technologies to supplement GPS, they both started with the realization that GPS alone cannot achieve mobile resource management or advanced location-enabled applications. While combinations of these technologies can greatly empower applications, most are highly reliant on mapping data.
Providers covering cities such as Boston, New York and Washington can deliver excellent information. Those in more rural areas are not as fortunate. As Verizon Wireless Busk discovered with the implementation of the Traffic Connect Service, “No location-based service can succeed without high-quality, relevant and timely information behind it.”
David Spark is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Contact him at [email protected]