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What is GPS Tracking?

What Is GPS Tracking and How Does It Work?

GPS tracking is device tracking that relies upon the Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine the location of the device. Some trackers relay that position location information in real time, while others only give up their location information when called upon (on demand), or when recalled physically (such as with a passive tracker). We’ll look at the differences in types of GPS trackers in a future section.

For now, let’s concern ourselves with how does GPS tracking work for businesses and consumers, each of whom might have very different reasons for investing in tracking units.

Let’s start with 5 reasons businesses use GPS tracking.

business GPS tracking

Top 5 Business Uses Of GPS Tracking Systems

  1. GPS tracking saves money. Not only can you make the most of your company’s transportation routes, but GPS tracking can help you reduce idling time and consequently save on gas. It can also lead to insurance reductions and faster delivery times, all of which are better for your business.
  2. GPS tracking protects your assets. Not only does GPS tracking help you determine how your drivers drive—which allows you to take steps to improve driver performance, lowering accident risk—but it also works as theft-prevention, allowing you to recover any devices that might go missing.
  3. GPS tracking helps you save time. Better routes lead to faster delivery times, which in turn allows your business to do more with its time. Additionally, fleet tracking systems can help you automate more processes, which in turn frees up additional time.
  4. GPS tracking improves efficiency. With GPS tracking, you can improve routes—but more than that, it can help you identify which drivers are best where, improve customer service, and more. All of that increased efficiency, in turn, leads to greater profits and minimizes costs.
  5. GPS tracking increases accountability. If you want to hold employees accountable to company standards, GPS tracking is a key asset. Not only does GPS tracking help you limit liability and corral employee behavior, but it can also help you work with law enforcement and insurance companies if an incident does occur.

Obviously, there are advantages to using GPS fleet tracking in increasing your business efficiency and profits beyond these five, as well. How does GPS tracking software work to benefit businesses? Companies worldwide have embraced GPS tracking as a way to increase their competitive advantages, and if you are in a position where you can do the same for your business (whether as an owner or manager), you would be well-served to do so.

Of course, it’s not just businesses that use GPS tracking. There are also plenty of other people using GPS tracking in their personal lives. Let’s look at 5 reasons consumers use GPS tracking.

Top 5 Consumer Uses Of GPS Tracking Devices

  1. GPS tracking offers peace of mind. If you are the parent of a teen driver, for instance, how well do you know your child’s driving habits? How does GPS tracking work to help offer parental oversight? Quite simply, in just about any way you need it to. Depending on the device you choose, GPS tracking devices can tell you all about your child’s driving habits, include geofences and curfews that give you a text alert when they’re driving somewhere or at a time they shouldn’t be, and more.
  2. GPS tracking can reduce your car insurance. Many different car insurance providers offer a variety of reductions for including GPS tracking. Some programs require you include a GPS tracker for a trial period, after which your rate is adjusted if you’ve proven yourself a safe driver. Others offer a straight percentage discount simply for using GPS asset tracking systems.
  3. GPS tracking can help emergency response services get to you faster. If you are in an accident and your vehicle is equipped with OnStar or another vehicle tracker that automatically alerts emergency response services, that tracker shares your exact location, meaning you don’t have to try and explain where you are on the phone. That means emergency responders can get to you faster, and in some cases, that can mean the difference between life and death.
  4. GPS tracking can increase the likelihood of finding your vehicle (or any other asset, for that matter) in case of theft. Not only are vehicles and other assets equipped with GPS vehicle tracking are less likely to be stolen (especially as more thieves become wary of GPS-equipped vehicles), but they are more likely to be recovered if they are stolen.
  5. GPS tracking can help save time and gas. GPS tracking devices that are integrated with map software can help you find the most efficient routes, which help you save both time and money.

Clearly, it isn’t just businesses that benefit from GPS tracking. Truly, “how does GPS tracking work for you” is a question everyone should ask themselves.

Related Article: How To Tell If A GPS Device Is Hidden On Your Car

What Is The Working Principle of GPS?

Navigation has always been a human problem. Whether a matter of survival or the difference between just getting by and thriving, solving navigation problems has been a touchstone of cultural shifts throughout human history. But how does GPS tracking work to solve that problem?

Let’s spend some time looking at the basic working principle of GPS. The Global Position System is comprised of 31 satellites, each roughly 12,000 miles above the earth’s surface. Each satellite makes two orbits of the earth each day, working in synchronicity to help ensure that no matter where on earth you are, there should be at least four satellites “visible” above you at all times (and often as many as six). While GPS needs only three of those satellites to use triangulation to determine your location, the fourth is necessary to limit potential errors and get a true lock on location; with only three satellites, GPS can’t control for the atomic clock, which means it has to assume your GPS tracker is at sea level. With four satellites, the necessary calculations can be made to ensure true location accuracy and thus use triangulation (actually trilateration in this case) to get location data within a few meters, including altitude.

And that’s the working principle beyond GPS: With four satellites, there’s a control for any inaccuracy that may result from a receiver that doesn’t keep an atomic clock; the fourth satellite can allow for the mathematical calculations that control for that.

But let’s take a closer look at how GPS calculates position so we can better understand how does GPS tracking work.

How Does GPS Calculate Position?

So, how does GPS tracking work to calculate position? It starts with those 31 satellites. No matter where on earth you are, you should have “visibility” (in as much as you can see something 1,200 miles above you, anyway) of at least four satellites. Let’s think of those satellites as satellites A, B, C, and D.

Most people think of the process the satellites use in conjunction with your receiver as triangulation, so let’s talk about how triangulation works to help explain how your GPS receiver gets its position location.

What is GPS tracking

Your receiver gets a signal from each satellite that includes data referencing the atomic clock time at which the signal was sent; based on the time at which your receiver gets that signal, it can determine the distance to each of the satellites. The signal also contains information about the satellite’s exact location at the time at which it sends the signal. Let’s say satellite A is 12,356 miles away, satellite B is 12,971 miles away, satellite C is 13,643 miles away, and satellite D is 15,192 miles away. Your receiver can use that distance information and the location information encoded with each satellite’s signal to determine the atomic clock time and the location using triangulation.

Still confused? Think of triangulation as a math problem that’s similar to a Venn diagram. If you think of that distance from satellite A as a giant circle (or really, a sphere, given that we’re working in three-dimensional space), there are a limited number of points on earth that is exactly 12,356 miles from the point in space where satellite A was when it sent the signal. Then if we take the points that are exactly 12,971 miles away from where satellite B was when it sent its signal, those points will overlap in just a few points with the satellite A points. (Think of how a two-circle Venn diagram overlaps, for instance.) When you add in the points that are exactly 13,643 miles from satellite C, you end up with an ever smaller set of points—like the intersection of three circles in a three-circle Venn diagram. Adding the points from satellite D’s data confirms your location and atomic clock data, as well as elevation—which is why what the GPS system does is technically trilateration, rather than triangulation, as it depends on distance (trilateration) rather than angles (triangulation).

Related Content: The 3 Components of GPS

What Are The Types of GPS?

There are lots of different kinds of GPS tracking systems: passive, on-demand, and real-time; data loggers, data pushers, and data pullers; street navigation systems, sports GPS systems (including watches), PDA or phone-based systems, and child location devices. Let’s take a quick look at each of these types of GPS tracker devices:

  • Passive GPS tracker: A passive GPS tracker stores GPS data, but does not transmit it. Instead, for a user to gain the data logged by the passive GPS tracker they must remove the device and plug it into a USB drive.
  • On-demand GPS tracker: Unlike passive GPS tracker devices, an on-demand device doesn’t just store the data. Instead, the data can be recalled remotely via a cellular network, either at set intervals or when a system user requests the data.
  • Real Time GPS tracker: These are the next step up from on-demand GPS tracker devices in that they transmit their GPS data in real time. These devices are great for fleet managers, for instance, who always need to know where their drivers and vehicles are.
  • GPS Data loggers: Data logger devices log the GPS data and store it for later retrieval, such as in a passive GPS tracker.
  • Data Pushers: Data pushers generally push the GPS data at predetermined time intervals.
  • Data Pullers: Also known as GPS transponders, data pullers allow their GPS data to be retrieved at any time.
  • Street Navigation Systems: When you think of TomTom or Garmin map units such as you might install in your car, you’re thinking of a street navigation system.
  • Sports GPS Systems: Many of these GPS tracker devices are built into small handheld devices or even a watch, allowing athletes to track their activity, follow a route, or both.
  • PDA or phone-based GPS systems: PDA or phone-based GPS systems are some of the most versatile, depending on how they are used or what apps might enlist them.
  • Child Location GPS Tracker Devices: Finally, many parents are turning to various GPS tracker options to keep a better eye on their children, whether a tracker installed in their vehicle when they first start driving or something installed on their phone or watch, for instance.

What Is A GPS Car Tracker?

When it comes to GPS tracker devices, one of the most common applications is in vehicles. Whether via a passive tracker, on-demand GPS tracker, or real time GPS tracker, a GPS car tracker is often the best way to keep an eye on a vehicle or even an entire fleet. Many of these tracker devices will track such varied data as location, speeds driven, idling times, routes taken, braking and accelerating forces, and more, all of which can be useful information when trying to keep an eye on a fleet, a particular vehicle, or a particular driver (such as a child, for instance).

How does GPS tracking work for you when it comes to a GPS car tracker? The truth is, the answers may be just as varied as the types of GPS or reasons for using GPS. Regardless of your needs, however, a GPS car tracker may be a solution.

What Does A GPS Car Tracker Look Like?

Truthfully, they vary quite a bit. Many of them are small, however, and can be easily hidden. If you’re looking for a GPS tracker in your car, it’s important not to confuse something else (potentially something you need as part of your electrical system, for instance) with a GPS car tracker—particularly if you’re looking to remove the GPS tracker.

As a result, GPS tracker removal should generally be handled by automotive professionals who know what to look for and know what are necessary parts of your car’s electrical system, so that nothing necessary for your car’s operation will unnecessarily be removed, for instance.

How A GPS Works Step-By-Step

We’ve talked a bit about how GPS and GPS tracking works, but wrapping your head around all of it can still be quite difficult. The combination of 31 satellites orbiting in space and signals bouncing between satellites and your GPS receiver to use trilateration and atomic clock time to determine your location isn’t a simple concept. So let’s try breaking it down, step-by-step.

When it comes to how does GPS tracking work, this is the five-step process:

  1. Triangulation. Or, to be more accurate, trilateration. This is the process of calculating the distance from each of at least three (or, preferably, four) satellites to the GPS receiver unit.
  2. The GPS unit calculates the distance from each satellite by calculating the time it took for the radio signal to go from the satellite that sent it to the GPS receiver and using that time to determine distance.
  3. Each satellite uses an atomic clock to ensure that their time signals are incredibly precise, allowing for incredibly precise distance determinations.
  4. The radio signal also includes information about where the satellites are in space when they send the signals, including their orbit position, which further ensures accuracy in determining the distance from the satellite to the receiver.
  5. Finally, the use of four satellites allows to correct for any potential errors, including adjusting for atmospheric delays and the lack of an atomic clock in the receiver, allowing for precision in determining the GPS receiver’s location.

Of course, as you’ve likely noted elsewhere in this article that’s still a gross oversimplification—but that’s the basic idea. So next time you find yourself asking, “how does GPS tracking work,” there’s your answer!

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