July 10, 2003
I read an excellent description of global positioning systems (GPS)--a locational technology--and its uses in a Fast Company article by Charles Fishman, (The Sky's the Limit, http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/72/gps.html).


Time is what keeps everything from happening at once; space is what keeps it all from happening to you!

I read an excellent description of global positioning systems (GPS)--a locational technology--and its uses in a Fast Company article by Charles Fishman, (The Sky's the Limit, http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/72/gps.html).

Fishman quotes an executive at a Silicon Valley GPS company as saying, "Imagine the end of property crime!"

It's...well, it's a bit scary to envision a world in which everything knows its place-and reports it. And tying in identity? Yikes!

But thanks to groups of satellites that are getting better every year, even the locationally challenged, like yours truly, can find their way around. I don't have my own GPS device, but I've often used the Hertz "NeverLost" system in rental cars, and have been delighted by its precision and reliability in most locales.

My introduction into the world of CAD involved location. As systems manager for Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County in 1973, I helped design one of the first municipal GIS (geographic information systems), LAMP--Nashville's Location And Mapping Program.

Knowing where the city's stuff was seemed like a reasonable goal.

Turned out that the cost of knowing to within a block is far lower than the cost of knowing to within six inches. And most needs for locational information by a city government--where buildings, utility poles, fences, and playgrounds are located; what routes are available for school buses or garbage trucks; voting districts; and so on--are satisfied by the one-block-face resolution.

Avoiding gas mains with backhoes requires much higher resolution; usually, it takes expensive survey work.

But GPS is changing that. Current satellite constellations let you locate things within a foot or less--and that will soon improve--which changes the economics of lots of activities.

Why should CAE readers care about location? For the same reason it was important to Nashville: Almost everything is somewhere--and where it is, matters.

Some examples: There've been numerous articles about radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips lately. These are chips that can be embedded in, or attached to, almost any product, and broadcast its identification. Of course, by doing so, the object is announcing its location to suitable sensors.

The Fast Company article tells of the farm uses of GPS--knowing exactly where every tractor, every movable thing is.

In a factory, where raw materials come in on palettes, GPS can have them report their own location in response to queries. Unilever put RFID tags on six-packs of Lynx deodorant at its factory in Leeds, England. Omron readers monitor the progress of the goods through the supply chain.

Trucking services have been using GPS/GIS systems for dispatching, scheduling, and tracking trucks and goods. The savings for the trucking companies are impressive, ranging up to 30%. But the truly impressive improvements are in responsiveness and reliability.

There is a dark side to location management. Do we really want our every move monitored by government agencies or private companies? The constitution guarantees us freedom of movement; but are we indeed free, if we are always being tracked?

With hackers breaking into all kinds of online databases, how long before a thief can buy the information of who is on vacation, and what they own--based on, say, insurance files? "Ok, what have you got for Elm Street? Fancy binoculars, high-end VCR, and all kinds of jewelry? And they're in the Bahamas? Maybe they left some of the jewelry home. Thanks, Lefty!"

On the other hand, if the binoculars and VCR have RFID chips built into them, they may report their location to the police.

The son of a friend recently wrote to him:

GPS is certainly an amazing system. While the story below does touch brieflyon the possible downsides, I think more noise needs to be made about thepotential for abuse.

For shipping businesses, it's really cool that they can track trucks soclosely. But when I'm in a rental car, I don't want the rental car companytracking me that closely. And people have already been issuedmulti-hundred-dollar fines by rental car agencies, for speeding in the car,based solely upon GPS tracking data. No kidding.


It's only a matter of time before these things are automatically installedin new cars. From there, it's not far to a "universal toll road", wherewe'll pay a fee or tax for using a road, based on exact distances traveledand speeds driven. Just in case you think I'm being alarmist, read thisarticle:http://observer.guardian.co.uk/politics/story/0,6903,656107,00.html

An article came out within the last week about the Pentagon/US governmentlooking to track every moving object in a city-sized area (ostensibly forurban warfare purposes). Where do you think THAT can go? http://www.darpa.mil/baa/baa03-15.htm

As to cell phones, don't forget that a phone is ALWAYS aware of the basestation when it's powered on -- every so often, it makes sure it can stillcommunicate with the nearest base station. It's a very small step for thecell phone companies to include current position in this communication.Here's an article on actually DOING that in the Far East:http://www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/east/08/14/mobile.pinpoint/When they ARE using the phone, it's quite possible to track people withouttheir knowledge, as this research paper indicates:http://www.sciencenetlinks.com/sci_update.cfm?DocID=175It turns out you can get a pretty good idea of the traffic flow on aninterstate by merely observing the quantity and Doppler shift of cell calls.Not hard to individualize that to track a specific person - you can bet thegovernment already does that for crime and terrorism fighting.

My Sprint Sanyo 4900 cell phone has an icon on its little color screen to tell me if my "locating" feature is on; I can turn it off. But if it is on, Sprint knows roughly where the phone is. That's great if I get buried under an avalanche, or forget where I left the phone. But not great if in a Big Brother scenario.

Like all technology, locational systems raise questions for which we don't necessarily have answers.

I look forward to a time when everything that comes into my home or office has a tag--maybe RFID, maybe some other kind--and gets "read" by my computer. After that, if I want to know where it is, I just ask my system, "Where's A Tale of Two Cities?" The computer responds with a floor plan, with a little flashing arrow pointing to the location of the book. Or my glasses. Or the car-key chain.

When one of our sons moved out of our home and into his own apartment, he called home periodically. "When he calls, he always tells me how he just cleaned the apartment, Maybe cleaning reminds him of me," mused my wife after one of these calls. "No; it's because that's the only time he can find his phone!" remarked his younger brother.

An RFID will fix that problem. But will it create others?

is an author, consultant, and public speaker. He consults to Fortune 500 companies, high-tech startups, and government agencies on CAE issues. He is the founder of the League for Engineering Automation Productivity (LEAP) and has been an Autodesk Distinguished Fellow and the Bentley Engineering Laureate. A long-time Computer-Aided Engineering columnist, in the CAD/CAM monthly e-mail newsletter, Dr. Orr will continue with his reflections on all aspects of engineering. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his Web site: www.joelorr.com

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