Search This Blog

Friday, June 28, 2013

OBDII GPS tracking - keeping the installs fast and simple

If your fleet of vehicles consists of light duty commercial vehicles, or passenger vehicles - then you might want to consider an OBDII GPS tracking device.  They are simple to install, which for large fleets of vehicles can make deployment quick and simple - and because of the integrated antennas, they're relatively tamper resistant. 

Some items to consider:
  • Employ a device with an internal battery.  This makes the device difficult to disable, and it can continue to track for several hours, or possibly days as long as the device is still in the vehicle.  You can even track yourself on foot for short periods of time by pocketing the device.
  • Utilize an extension cable if the installation of the device makes it prone to the driver hitting it, or causes it to stand out in any way.
  • Be sure that the tracking interface includes the availability of a WebApp, so that the vehicle can be tracked using any smartphone.
  • The devices are easy to install; however that means they can easily be removed as well.  If you want the ability to track the vehicle more covertly, or with some dedicated IO capabilities, then a more traditional 'black box' device may be in order.
  • Easy to install and uninstall also means that it's easy to move between vehicles if needed - which may include the need to track the employee's vehicle (which they may be using on behalf of their employer) or a rental car or van, or for fleets of leased vehicles where black-box installation isn't practical.
  • The location of the integrated GPS antenna isn't optimal.  Many locations for the device are under the steering column, and this can be adequate for 'reasonable' tracking needs in many cases - but if the vehicle is being driven in areas where the view of the sky is consistently compromised, consider a 'black box' device with an external antenna.
OBDII interfaces in the USA do not typically include features such as remote starting, remote alarming, window control, lock control, vehicle disabling or speed throttling, etc.  Interfaces of this sort are prohibited by most vehicle manufacturers, and if employed can potentially void the vehicle's warranty.

However, the device, if properly installed and operational (and within an adequate wireless coverage area), can provide real-time vehicle location and recovery services, as well as driver safety and behavior assessment; and future upgrades to more advanced technology will be easy to implement or swap out - or to move between vehicles as needed.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

GPS Fleet tracking in the age of the Sequester

Fleet tracking systems can be a boon for companies or government entities that are trying to save money for their organization.  These types of systems provide the efficiency as well as the oversight that can allow an organization to tighten their fleet related spending - which can be used to lower their overall budget, or to help to prevent severe cost reductions in other critical areas of the organization.

One major issue is how to come up with funding to invest in a cost savings system like vehicle tracking when income is actively being reduced.  Here are some ideas:
  • Incremental system roll-out.  Purchasing the entire system at once will help to lower costs quickly, but if you can't do that with your current budget, install units on an incremental basis - using savings from the prior installs to help fund further installs until you have the system in place on your entire fleet.
  • Leasing.  Leasing a vehicle tracking system can usually defray some of the major up-front costs for a few months - enough to get the savings needed and the return on investment moving forward so that overall cash-flow is only impacted for a short period of time - a couple of months as opposed to years of protracted budgetary shortfalls.
  • Use a hosted solution.  While enterprise systems can be more cost effective over the long run for large fleets, the initial outlay may not be feasible in times when budgets are being tightened.   Even for fairly large systems, the savings of a hosted vehicle tracking system can help to pay for itself, and to create head-room on cash-flow within a few months.  Once the savings of a hosted system is in place an enterprise system can be easier to justify, putting in place the self-hosted system that will create even higher long-term savings.
  • Pilot systems.  Keep in mind that fallow times provide good timing for system pilots, demos, analyzing actual return on investment (ROI), defining specific requirements, etc.  Even if you can't afford a system right now, these efforts can help make for a stronger financial case later when competition for funding isn't as high.
The return on investment of a fleet tracking system for an organization varies based on the fleet size, the type of fleet vehicle, the average monthly mileage of the vehicle, and other factors such as if employees have access to the vehicles after hours, gas prices, etc.  Even so, the return on investment can generally approach $60USD a month per vehicle - after the costs for the equipment and services have been deducted.  For a fleet of 500 vehicles, this can create an additional monthly cost savings of $30,000USD, or a yearly savings of $360,000USD.  In some cases, the additional productivity that a vehicle tracking system provides can actually provide a significant boost to income not including the monthly cost savings; depending on the organization's business model.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

O3b Networks launches the first of its High Speed Internet Satellites

Named for the "Other 3 billion"; O3b which was was founded in 2007, has successfully launched the first 4 satellites comprising their high-speed satellite Internet access system.  They also have plans to launch 4 more satellites by the end of 2013.  The 8 satellites will orbit at about 8,000km in a medium Earth orbit satellite constellation.

The company, which has raised over $1B USD so far, includes a variety of partners such as Liberty Global, Allen and Company, Google, HSBC, and SES World Skies - and plans to provide high-speed low-latency communication services for areas of the globe that lack suitable 3G services; and can act as a back-haul for these areas as an alternative to typical fiber-optic back-hauls.

The company is offering corporate networking at rates of 100, 150, 200, 400, 600, 800, and 1000Mbs, and has already signed contracts to provide Internet services in portions of Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  They have also signed a deal with Royal Caribbean to provide high-speed Internet for it's cruise ships.

The launch was made with the Soyuz-STB/Fregat-MT rocket, with the next launch scheduled for September 2013.

Smartphone GPS tracking considerations

Smartphone market share is driving forward, replacing standard flip phones at an increasing rate.  

Touted as the 'supercomputer' in our pockets - with GPS, and wireless Internet integrated into a single package, they would seem to be the tracking solution of choice.  

The Waze craze, and their subsequent high profile purchase by Google only seems to reinforce that perception.  However, there are still some issues with using smartphones as a tracking devices.  Here are a few items to consider:
  • Smartphone applications for tracking can be turned off by the user, or the phones can be turned off to defeat tracking.  No matter how ingenious the application, it can't provide any location information if it is turned off.  This applies to cell phone triangulation, or cell tower tracking by the wireless carriers if the phone is turned off.
  • Battery life is still a limitation.  With all of the various applications running on a phone, plus the battery drain of an active GPS and wireless interface (either WiFi or cellular), the battery drain on a portable phone can be extensive.  Charging the device while driving in the vehicle can help to extend the battery life, but the user may feel that they need to intervene from time to time to turn the application off in order to preserve the battery life - eliminating location data that may be critical to the fleet manager or monitoring entity.
  • Relevant vehicle IO may not be accessible from your phone.  Access to the vehicle's IO such as the ignition interface, or digital engine interface or for commercial vehicles IO like the VIN, mileage and PTO status, are not readily available to the phone.  This is generally the case - though this may change in the near future.
  • The GPS signal strength (and thus accuracy) may not be as good for some phones.  Mobile phones lack the strong grounding and shielding system that vehicles have, and GPS signal strength can suffer from the close proximity to the microprocessors and other wireless devices built into the phone - especially with regard to their close proximity to the GPS antenna.  GPS satellite signals are already 'buried' below the noise floor, so anything that increases the noise floor can impair it's operation; especially in areas with a limited view of the sky.
Using your smartphone for tracking yourself as you are walking, or biking, or in other outdoor sports such as skiing can still be advantageous - if well managed; but for vehicle tracking - embedded and dedicated devices continue to be a superior solution.  

Pricing for professional dedicated vehicle tracking devices is in the $100-$125 USD range, and tracking plans combined with low-end wireless plans can be in the range of $16.99-$19.99 USD a month - significantly lower cost than a smartphone wireless plan.  

Higher end dedicated tracking systems can also include additional IO features like the engine interface which can provide information about hours of service, as well as odometer readings that can help to suggest maintenance alerts for the vehicle.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Fleet Managers - the human brain as a Big Data Engine

In a recent post by the GoodData blog, they discuss how Warren Buffet has consistently been able to outperform the stock market by roughly 13% over a 35 year period;  the implication being that Mr. Buffet's methodology allows him to act like a human version of a Big Data engine.

The article indicates that with the proper training/education, focus, analytics, and accurate information, that the human brain, can rival similar Big Data systems; much as Warren Buffet has.  While increases in computer processing power continue to follow Moore's law, all but a few of the most powerful computer systems lag well behind the human brain's capacity.

Some of their suggestions for emulating Mr. Buffet's success include:

  • Knowing or understanding what you're looking for.
  • Understanding how the object of your research works.
  • Using solid benchmarks.

Underlying these suggestions is the ability to filter through emotion and the urge to apply 'guesswork' to the analysis instead of real research.

This is true for fleet managers as well.  When provided with visually formatted maps, and reports, they can spot trends and deficits with amazing accuracy.  It's up to the vehicle tracking systems to provide the fleet manager with accurate information and statistics to create solid benchmarks - and to flag events that help to identify trends or problems.

So while vehicle tracking systems are an invaluable tool for collating information - don't forget that it takes a trained and insightful human mind to properly interpret the information in a meaningful manner - and to help apply well thought out solutions to problems as they arise.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Vehicle tracking systems - Hosted Services vs. Enterprise

If you have a moderate or large fleet of vehicles that you are looking to track, or if you have special security needs for your fleet location data; then you may want to consider an enterprise system over a hosted tracking system (also referred to as a SaaS or a Cloud Computing system).

Early vehicle tracking systems were all developed as enterprise systems. These systems were usually very expensive and tailored to the organization that was implementing them as a custom designed system. As the integration of wireless internet and GPS came together, fairly large systems could be setup to run over the Internet so that smaller clients could take advantage of the technology.  This lead to a 'boom' in hosted tracking systems during the dot-com bubble period around 2000.

Hosted systems are well suited for clients in the range of 1-500 units, but as the size of the fleet approaches 1,000 units, economies of scale start to favor an in-house or enterprise GPS tracking system.  Fleet sizes above 3,000 units with an in-house IT department and NOC facilities should strongly consider an enterprise tracking system as the costs and control of a hosted system can quickly exceed those of an enterprise system.

Hosted system services are generally paid for monthly, bi-yearly, or yearly; or over multiple years if a contract for the services is entered into.  Enterprise systems are usually paid for once for the life of the software or system.  For public safety entities, the life of the service may be 10-15 years.  This initial payment may also include system customization for the customer.  Enterprise systems generally do not include ongoing updates to the software unless specific changes are outlined at the time of purchase, or if an additional yearly software maintenance agreement is included.  Hosted systems generally include ongoing software and service updates; though the system provider is generally in control of the release dates for any updates.

System redundancy and future expansion is a consideration in the initial deployment of an enterprise system.  Consideration should be given to how the system will continue to operate under 24x7 conditions when the system needs to be upgraded - so multi-server systems with automated or manual fail-over should also be a consideration in the overall system design.  Also, there should be a design path forward if the number of vehicles to be supported may exceed 10% of the original design.  These considerations are less of an issue for most hosted systems, as the services provider handles these IT maintenance, and design aspects of the system for the client. 

Enterprise systems usually are limited to 'run-time' system software (compiled 'object code') hosted on the clients system, and are designed specifically for the number of devices and users the system needs to host; and setup so that the client's IT staff can maintain the system adequately.  In some cases, enterprise systems can include access to source code for the system - but this is rare as the cost of the source code licence can double or triple the cost of a typical run-time enterprise system; however in critical system operations that have their own development or software engineering team(s), it can be a contract requirement - usually granted under the auspices of a non-competing entity in a specific geographical marketplace.

Another reason enterprise systems are sought out can be for the need to secure the software tracking system on the clients network, or to be hosted as an Intranet application for the client.  Economies of scale may not be the overriding consideration for these types of systems, and systems can be implemented for customers that have fewer than 500 vehicles to track.

When considering an enterprise system, also be sure to ask how many IT staff members will be required to manage the system;  the smaller the staff requirements, the more automated and stable the system is likely to be.

Lastly, ask about what kinds of intellectual property protection the system provider can afford the client, as well as how far back the 'prior art' of the system goes.  The longer the technology has been in place, the older the prior art, and the stronger the protection for the IP in the marketplace. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Big-Data analysis is here to stay - So when is tracking Good, and when is it Bad?

Recently there has been a lot of concern over cell phone and other data being provided by wireless carriers and social networks to the NSA and the far reaching implications of providing that data with regard to personal privacy as weighed against public safety.  There has been much less concern over wireless carriers selling subscriber data as a way to 'monetize' the inherent information in their call data - or the carriers' own use of the information for internal sales and marketing purposes.

So when is tracking (by GPS or by wireless tower) Good and when is it Bad?  Tracking your vehicles or assets is fairly easy to put into the 'Good' category.  Knowing where your property or mobile assets are can be a good thing when it's missing, or not being utilized properly, or in the event of an emergency.  However, it can be a bit confusing with the property has more than one owner.  Setting up policies that keep the information transparent but private to the owners, is imperative; sharing the information with others outside the 'family' or organization should only be done on a 'need to know' basis, and with limitations in scope.

Many of the early adopters of GPS location systems were the Public Safety sector; Fire, Ambulance, Police, and State patrols.  There was some initial concerns regarding the 'big brother' nature of such devices; but it was quickly dispelled when managers openly discussed the need to know driver's locations in near real-time in the event of an emergency; and emergency management is such a big part of what they do, they understood the need to know privilege right away.  There was still a social culture of concern regarding the technology, but now, GPS tracking is considered a standard management tool in the public safety industry.  However, like most legitimate tools it can be dangerous in the wrong hands or when used in the wrong way - public and private agencies don't typically share their location information outside of their respective organizations, even with other related agencies since it's difficult to make sure where access to the tracking information goes once it's outside their immediate control.

In some recent articles regarding cell-phone Big-Data analysis, there has been some interesting information about how the data can be applied for the greater public good: tracking the spread of malaria in Africa, Bus routes redrawn for more efficient services in urban cities.  There are some  examples of interesting but more benign analysis using cell phone to help determine how many fans of one team or another occupy a particular stadium, or for marketing analysis regarding how many locals may be passing by a store without ever visiting.  However, this type of data has been made anonymous, while limiting it's scope so that personal (or corporate) privacy is relatively well protected.

So what make 'Good' location data practices?  Here are some general rules:
  • Specific data, such as GPS data should be only provided to the owners of the assets being tracked, even when made anonymous.  Even over short time periods or limited geography the data can show specific travel habits well enough to pin-point individuals.  Phone tower information is somewhat generalized already since it covers a fairly large geographical area without specific location information, and as long as it is limited in geography, and time, and made anonymous, it can be used for more general statistical analysis.  However, correlated with additional data, such as purchases, this data can identify specific individual activity as well.
  • Any specific data (such as GPS data) shared outside of the agency, organization, or personal owner should be on a need to know basis, and should only be available for limited periods of duration.  This information should be anonymously presented (stripped of linkage to individuals, companies, assets, and their cargo), and geographically and time constrained.  The longer the time range of the location data, the better chance there is of unintentionally divulging personal or private information.
  • Make sure that the online data is reasonably well secure, and unneeded data is deleted or securely archived (offline) as soon as it is no longer relevant.
  • Be sure that within reason, that data cannot be tampered with, or if it's to be used for legal purposes, that critical data such as speed and location data can be corroborated by a second source.  Individual pieces of data have enough margin of error in them to create intrinsic 'reasonable doubt'.
Beware of any 'Bad' location data practices:
  • Tracking people without their knowledge even if the asset you are tracking belongs to you.  Though not illegal, this is a bad practice that only reinforces the 'big brother' attitude of legitimate tracking.  Be upfront about what you are doing and why with the user, driver or operator.
And finally, illegal practices:
  • Tracking or attempting to locate assets that do not legally belong to you without the owners permission for the purposes of 'spying' or 'stalking' the asset, the person, or company making use of the asset.
  • Tracking assets or people without proper licensing, or making use of the technical intellectual property without specific permission or licensing.
  • Making private data (location or otherwise) publicly available without permission, or for the purposes of altering an individuals account or location information (hacking).
  • Use of mobile jamming devices to interfere with the GPS/GNSS and/or wireless communication system - which can interfere with not only the local system, but with other mobile systems around the vehicle.
  • Though extremely rare outside of military use for the purposes of espionage, GPS spoofing is also illegal. 
Location tracking can be used for business or personal reasons for a number of legitimate reasons; to help with efficiency, for logistical cost and process efficiency, to limit liability as well as for personal and product safety.  Setting up internal tracking policies and processes can help to setup and keep secure clear limits on your internal tracking data.

Obviously some data security is out of the hands of private citizens and corporations - data that wireless carriers and governments access without our knowledge, or with a warrant.   If you have concerns contact your wireless provider or regional State/Federal agencies to see what you can do to opt out of any data tracking (also called CPNI sharing) they may be performing internally - as well as to verify when existing data is being deleted or archived, and any notifications regarding whom the data has been provided to.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Hands-free" isn't necessarily "risk free"

A new study from the AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety indicates that while some "hands-free" technologies may make it easier for drivers to text, talk on the phone, or use applications like Facebook or email while they drive - that such activity can cause "dangerous mental distractions"; even if drivers are keeping their hands on the wheel of the vehicle.

In a report by FleetOwner - Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, endorsed AAA’s position, saying OEMs should reconsider the inclusion of communications and entertainment technology built into vehicles that allow, or even encourage, the driver to engage in these activities at the expense of focusing on driving. “Auto crashes are the leading cause of death for everyone between five and 35 years old in the U.S.,” she added. “About 100 people die every day on our nation's roads. And the number one cause of car crashes is human error and driver distraction is the top human error. Based on this new research and many earlier studies, it is irresponsible to permit, enable and even encourage non-driving related activities that divert a driver's attention from the task of driving.”

Dr. David Strayer and a research team from the University of Utah conducted the "cognitive distraction" study for the AAA.  His team categorized the mental distraction as follows:

  • Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category “1” level of distraction or a minimal risk.
  • Talking on a cell-phone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a “2” or a moderate risk.
  • Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to a “3” rating or one of extensive risk.

As a result of the study AAA is formulating some suggested policies on "hands-free" technologies:

  • Limiting use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control, and to ensure these applications do not lead to increased safety risk due to mental distraction while the car is moving.
  • Disabling certain voice-to-text technologies, such as social media e-mail and text messages, when the vehicle is in motion.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

GPS CNAV Civil Capabilities Now Being Tested

From GPS World - U.S. Air Force Space Command is now testing CNAV capabilities on the GPS L2 and L5 signals. The initial CNAV Live-Sky Broadcast began June 15 and will take place until June 29. Civil users and manufacturers are invited to participate.

The GPS Directorate (SMC/GP) is implementing the CNAV (Civil Navigation) Test Program, conducting Live-Sky CNAV testing before deployment of the Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX). CNAV is a capability to be provided by Civil Navigation message types for the purpose of improved GPS navigation through the use of signals L2C and L5.

According to the GPS Directorate, the CNAV Live-Sky testing program will span several years and will evolve to support GPS enterprise and modernized civil navigation performance objectives. Objectives include:

  • Verify and validate the CNAV requirements specified IS-GPS-200F and IS-GPS-705B.
  • Facilitate the development of robust IS-compliant L2C and L5 civil receivers.

Below is the latest Notice Advisory about the upcoming test issued to NAVSTAR users. More information can be found in the NAVCEN test plan PDF.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Atomic Clocks to sync wirelessly for more accurate GPS satellite systems

NIST researchers transferred ultra-precise time signals over the air between a laboratory on NIST's campus in Boulder, Colo., and nearby Kohler Mesa. Signals were sent in both directions, reflected off a mirror on the mesa, and returned to the lab, a total distance of approximately 2 km indicated study co-author Nathan Newbury of NIST's Quantum Electronics and Photonics Division. "The actual link is a loop." The experiment used an infrared laser to generate ultra-short pulses at a very precise rate of 1 picosecond every 10 nanoseconds, where 10 ns corresponds to a set number of "ticks" of an optical atomic clock.  The two-way technique overcomes timing distortions on the signals from turbulence in the atmosphere, and shows how next-generation atomic clocks at different locations could be linked wirelessly to improve distribution of time and frequency information and other applications.

The stability of the transferred infrared signal matched that of NIST's best experimental atomic clock, which operates at optical frequencies. Infrared light is very close to the frequencies used by these clocks, and both are much higher than the microwave frequencies in conventional atomic clocks currently used as national time standards. Operating frequency is one of the most important factors in the precision of optical atomic clocks, which have the potential to provide a 100-fold improvement in the accuracy of future time standards. But the signals need to be distributed with minimal loss of precision and accuracy. 

The test was done across land, but eventually, the researchers hope, it should be possible to transfer the pulses via satellites. 

In the future, optical atomic clocks could be used for satellite-based experiments to create more precise GPS satellite navigation systems, which "could be improved in the sense that you could put better optical clocks in satellites and cross-link them optically," Newbury said. 

For GPS systems, an error of just one nanosecond, or a billionth of a second, would mean the location is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) off.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The 'Astronomical data' Behind UPS’ New Tool to Deliver Packages more efficiently

An excellent article from 'Wired' on the logistical challenges of UPS, and the use of heuristics to make their delivery methodology even more efficient.  

Here is a quick summary of some of the numbers that they deal with on a daily basis:

30—The maximum number of inches UPS specifies a driver should have to move to select the next package. This is accomplished through a meticulous system for loading packages into the truck in the order in which they’ll be delivered.

74—The number of pages in the manual for UPS drivers detailing the best practices for maximizing delivery efficiency.

200—The number of data points monitored on each delivery truck to anticipate maintenance issues and determine the most efficient ways to operate the vehicles.

55,000—The number of “package cars” (the brown trucks) in UPS’ U.S. fleet. If the figures involved in determining the most efficient route for one driver are astronomical in scale, imagine how those numbers look for the entire fleet.

16 million—The number of deliveries UPS makes daily.

$30 million—The cost to UPS per year if each driver drives just one more mile each day than necessary. By that same logic, the company saves $30 million if each driver finds a way to drive one mile less.

85 million—The number of miles Levis says UPS’ analytics tools are saving UPS drivers per year.

100 million—The reduction in the number of minutes UPS trucks spend idling thanks in part, the company says, to onboard sensors that helped figure out when in the delivery process to turn the truck on and off.

200 million—The number of addresses mapped by UPS drivers on the ground.

15 trillion trillion—The number of possible routes a driver with just 25 packages to deliver can choose from. As illustrated by the classic traveling salesman problem, the mathematical phenomenon that makes figuring out the best delivery routes so difficult is called a combinatorial explosion.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Google's 'Loon'y Internet Balloons

 Using helium filled balloons launched from New Zealand, and floating about 12 miles (20 km) in the stratosphere; Google is testing Internet access via remote controlled balloons with flight computers.  The balloons will control their location by changing altitude to pick up different wind patterns.  The transmitter on each balloon would beam down the Internet to an area about 780 square miles (1,250 square kilometers) — twice the size of New York City; but will require a special transceiver on the ground.  Connection speeds will be equivalent to 3G.  Inter-balloon and ground-to-balloon communication will use ISM bands (specifically 2.4 and 5.8 GHz).  You can follow their progress on g+.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Parking sensors, smart street signs and their implications for vehicle tracking systems

Imagine a robotic street sign that can anticipate points of interest for you as you approach it in your vehicle - using a host of information such as the time of day, holidays, weather, important local events, and location relevant social media data - like the start (or end) of nearby concert.  

That's the concept of a company called 'Breakfast' and their product called 'Points': a smart, dynamically rotating set of digital signage.

In an ongoing effort to setup intelligent parking infrastructure, several cities have started installing smart parking sensors to indicate when parking areas are taken, and when they have become recently available. These devices are placed in the pavement in order to detect when a vehicle is parked in an individual space.

How are these and other related sensors going to impact drivers and vehicle tracking systems?

In the future with a more prominent foothold for the 'Internet of things', machine to machine communication will be a given - not only will the parking sensor know that you've parked there, but it will be able to identify the vehicle's make and model, and in some cases, the VIN number as well.  The sensor will be able to securely relay your associated credit card information to the electronic parking meter, and verify that you don't have any prior outstanding parking or speeding tickets - while your in-vehicle navigation system suggests the closest parking spot to your destination - and your vehicle tracking services let your company, and your customer (or vendor/associate) know that you've arrived. 

Vehicle tracking system providers will have the opportunity to take the lead on this technology revolution by providing a variety of communication system integration features (such as integrated, GPS, Zigbee, RFID, OBDII, and/or Bluetooth voice and data connections) acting as a communication hub, and retrofitting vehicles with tracking and communication technology that will allow their owners to have relatively easy access to these systems.  This will allow for smoother integration between communication and automation devices that the driver/passengers are wearing or carrying; and the vehicular environment.

'Smart hubs' will be able to rapidly increase the uptake of integration with systems like hand-held or wearable communication devices, automated road systems, and Internet parking; which cities will be actively (and in some cases aggressively) setting up to help manage services like parking and traffic control, but also to handle crowd-sourced information for things like real-time traffic reporting by the vehicles, vehicle health, reporting accidents, road or environmental hazards, stolen vehicles, while also providing access to social features such as how close friends and family are in case you wish to setup an impromptu get together; not to mention location relevant ads for possible meeting places.

Why is all of this important?  Because the underlying driver for this technology will be the ongoing pressure regarding energy use, increased efficiency, and decreasing impact on our environment, which is going to continue to build over time; and this kind of flexible technology will be able to help to reduce overall costs while providing new amenities and efficiency to individuals, businesses, and governments alike.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court turned down operational mandates set by the Port of Los Angeles in an attempt to impose regulation on interstate commerce

In an opinion authored by Justice Kagan, a unanimous Supreme Court rejected the Port’s contention. 

The legal arguments were regarding "concession agreements" that the Port made mandatory for drayage trucks performing short haul movement of cargo in and out of the port - under the auspices of the "Clean Truck Program" which was implemented in 2007.  The agreement required that the trucking company meet additional regulations for financial capacity, maintenance, and additional regulations for it's employment of drivers.  The agreements also require specific placards be placed on the vehicles with a phone number for reporting issues or concerns, and a plan for off-street parking.  An amended tariff made it a misdemeanor for terminal operators to grant access to any unregistered drayage truck.

Agreeing with ATA on these rules, the Court concluded that, whatever the Port’s asserted motivation, the concession agreements amounted to “classic regulatory authority” and thus fell within the scope of the FAAAA’s preemption provision. It observed that the concession agreements, while technically contracts between the Port and trucking companies, were not the “result merely of the parties’ voluntary commitments.”  Rather, the Port compelled trucking companies to enter into the contracts as a condition of access to the Port, by “wielding coercive power over private parties, backed by the threat of criminal punishment.”  By imposing the concession agreements through coercion rather than “ordinary bargaining,” Los Angeles was “performing its prototypical regulatory role.”.

A possible technical solution involving GPS to the conflict over the Blue Nile dam in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is building several hydro-electric dams throughout the country in an effort to provide reliable electrical power to it's citizens, and to help generate income for the country by selling power to some of it's neighboring countries; including Sudan and Kenya as well as Djibouti.

The most contentious though is the current construction for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile - which once constructed will be the largest dam in Africa, at a cost of 4.8B euros ($6.4B USD) and generating an expected 6,000MW.  The Blue Nile and the White Nile meet near Khartoum in Sudan to form the Nile which subsequently flows into Egypt.  The Nile is considered to be the longest river in the world and impacts multiple neighboring countries - the Blue Nile originates in Ethiopia from lake Tana.  The Blue Nile provides the Nile with 85 percent of it's overall resources so it's clearly an important tributary.  Egypt's 'war of words' over GERD oscillate between righteous indignation and outright threats over the building of the dam; with some Egyptian minsters actually going so far as to suggest air strikes against the structure.  So far Ethiopia is standing it's ground and as shown in the picture above, has already diverted the Blue Nile in preparation for building the dam - which is estimated to be 21% complete.  

Egypt is claiming historical and colonial-era treaties grant them 70 percent of the water supply (55 billion cubic meters of water per year), and consider any significant loss of their water rights to be a matter of national security for it's more than 84M population.  The Nile provides Egypt with 90% of all of their natural water resources. In May of 2010 five members of the Nile Basin Initiative signed a cooperative framework agreement to seek more water from the River Nile - a move strongly opposed by Egypt and Sudan.

In spite of the controversy, I suspect there will be a diplomatic set of solutions and compromises between all interested parties - as Egypt is an influential trading partner with Ethiopia, and throughout Africa and the Middle East.  However, part of that overall diplomatic solution could be a technical one.

By using an intelligent 'Internet of things' strategy, buoys could be placed at strategic locations before and after the dam to collect real time readings on several items like the depth of the river, the speed of water flow, air and water temperature, pH, etc - coupled with specific GPS locations of the buoy where the data is being collected.  This data could then be provided to all interested parties for near real-time analysis to help show compliance with any compromise agreements, or existing agreements in place regarding the responsible management of the Blue Nile's natural resources.  The data and subsequent analysis can be used to show when use of the dam may be needed to help mitigate potential flooding, but can also be used to show real-time shortfalls in water supplies to downstream entities - while providing ongoing historic data about seasonal water supplies within the Nile basin.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Original GPS design team member shares a similar vision with Waze

Bradford Parkinson, former US Air Force Colonel, professor emeritus at Stanford University, and integral member of the team that invented GPS technology shared his vision of the future of GPS with CNN in a recent interview. 

In the interview, he indicates that self-driving cars with GPS will be one of the next major steps forward for the technology - using, among other things, cooperation between cars.

This is similar to the 'crowd sourcing' of highway, traffic, and road condition information that Waze is using to help drivers navigate from location to location.  It's no wonder that Google is snapping up the company for an estimated $1.3B, since they are already highly invested in the self-driving vehicle technology market.  Automated sharing of this kind of crowd sourced information from other drivers or automated vehicles should only further advance the technology - and the Google patent base.  The self driving automobile market already has a high barrier to entry - Google is making sure it stays that way for the foreseeable future.  

In September 2012, California legalized self driving vehicles, and are expected to have the first draft of regulations and legislation for self driving vehicles in 2015; with the first self driving vehicles expected to hit the highways in 2016.

While experts have indicated that the current self driving systems are somewhat impractical - since they involve system technology costing nearly $70,000, the CNN article reminds us that the first 'portable' GPS system was the 'Manpack', which weighed 40 pounds and cost over $400,000 - while today's GPS devices can be "smaller than a fingernail and cost $1.50".

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Detecting GPS/GNSS Spoofing using antenna articulation

There is a recent article out by Mark L. Psiaki, Steven P. Powell, and Brady W. O'Hanlon on GNSS spoofing detection, related to the specific possibility that the drone recovered by Iran was potentially spoofed into landing, allowing them to capture the drone.  The article also lays out a technological solution on how to prevent that from happening in the future; whether or not it actually happened in Iran which is still a matter of conjecture.  Technology simulating the spoofing capability was tested against a UAV helicopter (while hovering) in White Sands for simulation - but so was the possible solution.

The potential solution involved (in the prototype) articulating the GPS/GNSS antenna in a predefined motion that the spoofing system could not detect - allowing the augmented GPS/GNSS system to determine when the signal they were receiving was valid or not, by looking for regular perturbations of the signal caused by the induced motion. This appeared (according to the writers) to be an excellent way to detect GPS/GNSS spoofing in near-real-time.

While in the USA commercial and consumer tracking markets, we're more likely to run into low cost GPS/GNSS jamming systems, spoofing will likely be trending up in the near future.  What the military is encountering today, we in the commercial and consumer GPS markets are likely to encounter tomorrow.  As we continue to work with potential GPS/GNSS vendors we'll be asking about the future ability to include electronically synthesized antenna motion, as well as additional processing power for software radio based spoofing solutions; as well as the possible integration of inertial measurement unit (IMU) technology to help provide navigation holdover when the GPS/GNSS signal cannot be adequately discerned, or it is determined to be potentially inaccurate.  This may also be a practical solution for areas where electronic jamming is not the problem, but natural interference or degradation of the signal (such as obstructions in parking garages, tunnels, or due to multipath signals) is the culprit.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Setting up Idle Alerts and Reporting to help drive fleet costs down

Excessive idling can cost thousands a year in fuel and maintenance costs.

America's fleet of about 500,000 long-haul trucks consume over a billion gallons of diesel fuel each year.  The trucking industry has analyzed the impact of idling on engines, both in terms of maintenance and engine wear costs.  Long-duration idling causes more oil and oil filter deterioration and increases the need for more oil and filter changes.  Similarly the longer the idling time, the sooner the engine itself will need to be rebuilt. 

The trucking industry estimates that long duration idling costs the truck owners $1.13 per active vehicle per day, just in oil and maintenance costs.  Excessive idling fuel costs vary from vehicle to vehicle, but estimates for small vehicles (Ford Focus for example) is in the range of 2 liters or 0.32 gallons per idle hour.  For heavy trucks (Ford F-350), the estimate is closer to 6.8 liters or 1.08 gallons per idle hour.  A study by the Texas Transport Institute indicated that Semi trucks idle their engines for 6 to 10 hours a day outside of normal travel.  Estimated total annual idling time was in the range of 1,500-3,000 hours per truck per year.  Using the estimated average diesel fuel costs for 2013 to be $3.88 per gallon of fuel, this would cost the average semi-driver between $5,820-$11,640 per year.  Across the trucking industry this represents about $2.91B - $5.82B in potential lost revenue annually.

According to the US Department of Transportation there were an estimated 254,212,610 registered passenger vehicles in the US in 2009.  Using a NOx estimated Emissions calculation of 5 minutes per day per vehicle (on average) would indicate emissions of 127 tons/day.  It's estimated that 23 tons/day of NOx are emitted in the major metropolitan areas in Texas alone due to extended truck idling, so vehicle idling is a major contributor to the overall emissions inventory of the US.  Using vehicle tracking systems and setting up in-house idling policies can help to measure and reduce idling costs both in terms of costs to the owner or company, as well as the cost to the environment.

Setting up email alerts to measure when a vehicle has been idling for a minimum period of time, can help act as a reminder that the driver has exceeded his minimum idling time frame - and can help change idling behavior.

Additional alerts can be sent after the initial idle alert to indicate excessive idling - which can be evaluated by managers; to determine if the situation is an exception to the standard idling rules.

Managers can also run monthly or bi-monthly idling reports to verify that idling is reduced, and to carefully measure what current idling rates are costing the company - or how much adherence policies are doing to help reduce costs.

Several companies utilizing vehicle tracking systems have indicated that in actual practice, that the cost of implementing a GPS based vehicle tracking system can be paid for just on the savings of reduced fleet idling alone - even without adding in additional savings in insurance and reduced liability, reduced fuel usage, routing, safety, delivery verification, and driver productivity provided by the system.

Friday, June 7, 2013

How Space weather can affect GPS satellite performance

Space weather is the study of changing environmental conditions in near-Earth space, or the space from the Sun's atmosphere to the Earth's atmosphere.  It is a separate concept from weather within the Earth's atmosphere.

One of the events of most concern regarding space weather are coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the Sun, which are considered separate events from solar flares - though the two appear to be related.  CME's typically bring a shock wave of solar energetic particles to the Earth's atmosphere, causing a visual effect near the poles commonly called the 'aurora borealis'.  Other effects include geomagnetic storms, radio blackouts, and electrical line overloads which can lead to cascading power outages, as well as satellite outages. Geomagnetic storms are categorized from G1 (minor) to G5 (extreme). 

The ionosphere bends radio waves in the same manner that water in a swimming pool bends visible light.  The Global Positioning System (GPS) uses signals at 1575.42MHz (L1) and 1227.6 MHz (L2) which can be distorted by a disturbed ionosphere and a receiver computes an erroneous position or fails to compute any position. Because the GPS signals are used by a wide range of applications, any space weather event which makes the GPS signal unreliable can have a significant impact on society. For example the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) is used as a precision navigation and tracking tool for commercial aviation, personal tracking and commercial fleets in North America. It is disabled by most major space weather events. In some cases WAAS is disabled for minutes, but it can be disabled for days depending on the severity of the storm. Major space weather events can push the disturbed polar ionosphere 10° to 30° of latitude toward the equator and can cause large ionospheric gradients (changes in density over distance of 100's of km) at mid and low latitude. All of these factors can significantly distort GPS signals.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

GPS Modernization Video

A great 7 minute video summary of everything that the US GPS system provides to the public, for civil, economic, and defense activity throughout the world.

The overview includes its use for aircraft and ship navigation, global financial transactions, precision agriculture, weather forecasting  disaster relief, vehicle tracking and navigation, as well as its use in Smartphones.

USA Air Force studying lower cost solutions for the GPS satellite constellation

With the sequester in full swing all of the government agencies are looking for potential cost savings - and the Air force's deployment of the new GPS III satellite systems are officially part of that cost savings analysis.

GPS III satellites, which are scheduled to replace the aging satellites currently in orbit are still being considered as part of the plan, but so are 'downsized' versions of the satellites - so called NavSats (also referred to as Spartan sats or NibbleSats).  More of these satellites could be deployed to help provide fewer 'minutes of outages per day' (for areas that are 'sky impaired') than the current constellation, while giving up some of the more advanced features of the GPS III - such as the Nuclear Detonation Detection System payload (NDS) that requires significant power and shielding considerations.  Reduced power and shielding, as well as some feature reductions combined with design modernization for overall weight reduction, can allow for multiple satellites to be launched into orbit at the same time - further reducing overall budget costs.  Dual satellite launches for the GPS III are being considered, but launching of four of the NavSats at a time would provide even more efficiency.  Developing the capability for Earth based launch systems for multiple GPS satellites would also be helpful to future multi-satellite missions for the Moon, or for Mars missions.

Including some additional technological design improvements to help reduce weight, design, and operational costs (such as the use of lithium ion batteries and more efficient solar panel designs, as well as modernization for reduced heat rejection), the NavSat systems could reduce on-orbit costs to as much as 1/4 of the cost of the GPSIII (from an estimated $450 million to $110 million).  This additional savings, and the potential to increase the number of working satellites in orbit (from 24 to a proposed 33) would reduce costs and increase satellite visibility for regions such as Afghanistan where some mountainous areas include masking angles of up to 60 degrees.  With 24 satellites at 60 degrees of masking, outages can be as high as 6 hours per day - but with 33 satellites, no outages are calculated to occur until you lose one or two satellites - and those outages last about an hour or less.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

India Satellite Navigation Center Inaugurated

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Navigation Centre was Inaugurated May 28 2013 in Byalalu Bangalore, India.

Unlike the US Global Positioning System (GPS) which uses a low earth orbit system to cover the globe, the IRNSS coverage area is restricted to about 1,500km-2,000km around the Indian land-mass.  The system which is controlled by the Indian government was developed because of the concern that many GNSS, GPS system services may not be provided in possible future 'hostilities'.

The system is planned to use 7 total satellites with 3 of these satellites in geostationary orbit and the other four in an inclined geosynchronous orbit - along with a network of 21 terrestrial ranging stations located around India.

The first satellite, IRNSS-1A was scheduled for launch on June 12, but has been delayed for at least two weeks.  The satellite is planned to be launched from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh - located on an island about 80km north of Chennai near the Bay of Bengal.

The ISRO Navigation Centre (INC) was inaugurated by V. Narayanasamy, Minister of State in the Indian Prime Minister's office, and a member of Parliament.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Future 5G wireless

Samsung is testing 5G wireless technology in New York, sending and receiving more than a gigabit of data per second up to about 2 km - and possibly tens of gigabits per second at shorter distances.  The current design incorporates 64 antennas, which can be used to dynamically shape how the signals are divided up as well as providing directional transmissions.

Reaching these transmission speeds for stationary systems is one thing; getting them to work for mobile handsets is another - which is why several experts have been skeptical of their claims.  However, it appears that they have the system working for mobile speeds of about 8KM per hour (about 5MPH).  Additional testing has shown that the link could reach 200 meters even when there is no direct line-of-site between the mobile and tower.

Using the new technology - where a transmitter is mounted on an outside wall at the third-floor level of an 11-story concrete building, and with the receiver moving, they were able to deliver error free data at 256 Mbits per second, and nominal errors at 512 Mbits per second - where the maximum theoretical for 4G LTE would be about 75 MBits per second (under similar conditions); a 3-6 fold increase in data transmission speeds.

Transmitting and receiving data at these high rates have several challenges - including building obstructions or natural atmospheric phenomenon such as rain or fog.  Using the 64 antennas and rapidly switching between them to get the clearest signal is referred to as 'beam forming', and is mentioned as part of the Samsung patent filing.

Though Samsung is working on this technology, only the International Telecommunications Union can formally declare a new standard.  Nevertheless, companies like Samsung are competing heavily to help influence future communication standards.  Such new speeds will be required for the anticipated heavy influx of real-time multi-stream video and data that mobile devices will be expected to handle in the future.