Different Types of GPS Tracking Devices Explained


GPS trackers come in a bewildering variety of guises, sizes, and capabilities. There are GPS cat collars and GPS black boxes hardwired into eighteen wheelers. There are GPS devices in keychain pendants, and GPS devices the size of your cell phone. Some GPS devices run on batteries for as long as a year, while others have to stay plugged into your vehicle's USB port.

In this article we will take a look at the different kinds of GPS trackers on the market, including some that don't actually use the global positioning system.

Wait a Minute — GPS Trackers That Don't Use GPS?

Most people use the term GPS to refer to anything that computes position. Not every device that computes position is GPS.

Some tracking devices, for example, compute position by triangulating signals from cell phone towers. All GPS devices access the global positioning system, a network of satellites maintained by the US Space Force. GPS devices calculate position from the differences in time lag of signals from GPS satellites, and not from any terrestrial reference point.

If a device gets its inputs from GPS satellites, it is a GPS device. If it doesn't, it's not. Now let's take a look at some common kinds of GPS devices.

Wearable and Personal GPS Trackers

Wearable and personal GPS trackers keep tabs on people and pets.

GPS tracking devices designed to be carried or worn are usually quite small. They can be as small as a pendant on a key ring, or a button-sized device discreetly sewn into the clothes of an older person who tends to get lost.

More commonly, wearable GPS tracking devices are integrated into watches. There are watches that can be worn by hikers, hunters, and fishermen to give them continuous updates on their location, to within about 8 feet (2.5 meters) if there is a good signal. These devices may also be programmed for geofencing, sending out a signal when the wearer has left a preselected geographical location, and for calling for help when the wearer has fallen or unexpectedly stopped moving.

There are trackers that use Bluetooth instead of GPS. There are some serious limitations on Bluetooth trackers. Bluetooth tracking is accurate, but only within a range of about 800 feet (250 meters). If the person or pet you are tracking moves more than 800 feet away, you lose your connection to their tracking device.

There are also trackers that use information from cell phone towers. The limitation of these devices is that the person, pet, vehicle, or asset being tracked needs to be in range of four cell towers for them to work. Consumers choose this technology, however, because it can track very precise locations. 

GPS technology, for example, can track your laptop to a street address. Cell phone-enabled tracking devices can track your laptop to a specific location inside the building at that street address. 

Generally speaking, GPS tracking is better for people, animals, and vehicles that move over long distances—anywhere in the world. Cell phone technology is better for keeping track of small, valuable assets that are lost rather than stolen.

GPS Trackers for Vehicles and Equipment

GPS tracking is the ideal choice for vehicles and equipment. The devices for GPS tracking of these valuable assets operate anywhere in the world where there is access to open skies, and they can be integrated into onboard and remote systems that monitor a lot more than location. They can send fleet dispatchers information about driver safety, fuel use, engine status, and unexpected departures from routes. They can be integrated into management software and AI to prevent accidents, not just respond to them.

One of the first choices businesses need to make in choosing GPS trackers is how they want them to be powered. There are battery-operated GPS trackers that are easy to conceal, but need occasional maintenance. There are GPS trackers that operate off the vehicle's battery, but they are harder to conceal from disgruntled drivers and potential thieves. 

Battery-powered units are usually your only option for tracking boats, trailers, dumpsters, and cargo boxes. If you need to track these kinds of assets for months at a time, you will typically need a very powerful battery that is bolted into place in the frame of the object you track. To save energy, battery-powered GPS units may only report an object's location every 15 minutes when it is moving and every 4 hours when it is at rest.

GPS tracking units can be plug-in or hard-wired. If you are primarily interested in tracking the location of vehicles or assets that are operated by people you trust, you might opt for a tracking unit that plugs into your vehicle's OSB II port. If your older vehicle doesn't have an OSB II port (that is, it has a cigarette lighter), or if you need to conceal your GPS tracking device, you can have a GPS tracking device hard-wired into the electrical system.

So, How Do You Choose the Right GPS Tracking Device?

The truth is that there is no single GPS tracking system that works for every business in every situation. Different businesses have different budgets and different requirements for bonding and insurance. They have different exposures to theft, vandalism, and employee performance issues. They especially have different needs for the more advanced features available with telematic GPS tracking systems, that send a lot more information than just location.

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