Where Is the Will to Use GPS Technology to Help Protect Kids?

Don Tennant
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The Evolution of Communication Technology

SecuraTrac, a mobile health and safety technology provider in Hermosa Beach, Calif., has developed some innovative GPS technology to help safeguard the well-being of seniors and remote workers. While that’s a good thing, if the folks at SecuraTrac had their way, they’d be focusing more on developing products to help safeguard the well-being of kids. But it turns out there isn’t enough consumer interest in that for SecuraTrac to make a go of it.

In a recent interview, SecuraTrac CEO Chris Holbert said that when his company was founded in 2008, it was principally focused on the safety of children, and it kept that focus for three and a half years. But due to the market’s lack of interest, he finally gave up.

“It never worked for us, but it never worked for anyone else, either,” Holbert said. “There’s a lot of concern, but not a lot of real action and spending for children, when it comes down to it. It’s hard to know why. We’ve run a number of focus groups to try to figure it out, but it was a quick way to spend a lot of money and go nowhere.”

Holbert’s experience was consistent with my own failure to understand why there has never been the will to make implanting locator chips in kids a viable, affordable option for parents. It has always seemed to me that any parent of a missing child would have given anything to have had such a chip implanted. When I raised that subject with Holbert, he echoed the refrain of other experts I’ve spoken with over the years: We have the technology today to make it happen. We just don’t have the will.

“The challenge we have as a society has nothing to do with the technology, because the technology already exists — not commercially, publicly available, but it exists,” Holbert said. “You can actually go and do it in other countries — it’s a small tube, about the size of two grains of long-grain rice.”

No doubt, making such a device affordable is a challenge. The biggest hurdle has always been the power source. It seemed to me that if that issue has been solved for pacemakers, it shouldn’t be such a big deal for a GPS chip implant. But Holbert explained that it’s apples and oranges — a pacemaker requires a tiny level of power to function, whereas a GPS device requires significantly more. Holbert said that due to its small size, a locator chip would need to be powered by the body’s own heat and motion.

In any case, he said the technology will be commercially viable and affordable sooner than the regulatory bodies are going to be willing to sign off on it.

“This would have to be an FDA-reviewed medical device that would have to pass muster on a number of fronts,” he said. “It will take years to get through the moral discussion, as well as the health-related aspect of it.”

SecuraTrac has embarked on other valiant efforts, most recently a device that’s used by seniors and remote workers to signal for help in the event of a fall. The device, Mobile Defender Model S, is the size of a large key fob, and weighs about two ounces.

“Mobile workers tend to wear it on the hip,” Holbert said. “In the senior market, it’s typically worn around the neck on a breakaway lanyard.”

Holbert said the device is essentially a CPU with key ladder logic-like firmware built into it, along with a number of radios and modems. One is a GPS-based radio/modem; another is a 3G cellular modem, with backward-compatibility down to 2.5G and 2G. There are other components, Holbert said, but what’s core in terms of fall protection is a three-axis accelerometer.

“The three-axis accelerometer does a number of things that help us determine if someone may have fallen,” he said. “It determines force of impact — sudden stoppage or start of motion. That’s the first decision made in the evaluation of a likely fall. Second is the direction of angle, creating an angle of change. The third is lack of motion. So if you hit something with a certain force, and you started and ended at greater than a certain angular change, you then measure the time that there is no movement. If it exceeds a certain threshold, then it’s likely this person has fallen.”

Holbert said the next version of the Model S firmware, to be released later this year, will have a wake-on SOS function, which allows it to essentially stay in sleep mode until an SOS button is pushed.

“This will allow the Model S to last more than 30 days on a single charge,” he said, “whereas the Model S today lasts about three days.” Successive iterations will have the ability to turn themselves on automatically in the event of a fall, Holbert said.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.




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