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Everything You Need to Know About GPS Tracking

Everything You Need to Know About GPS Tracking

Jared Hoven
Jared Hoven

The ancient times saw people devising pretty extreme methods just to avoid getting lost. They relied on monuments and handmade maps just to make sure they are heading in the right direction.

But today, all you need is a handheld device to determine your exact location on Earth.

The global positioning system or GPS was first introduced and used by the US Department of Defense. The system is a complex structure of 31 satellites in orbit above the Earth and are the ones responsible for providing geolocation and time information to GPS devices.

How GPS Works

All 31 satellites in the GPS are solar-powered, and each of them circles around the Earth at about 20,000 kilometers and makes two rotations each day. Since it is impossible to physically measure the distance of these satellites, we resort to using the speed of the signal sent by the GPS satellites and the time these signals were sent. This is easy because satellites send out radio signals. These signals, which are sent out constantly, contain the current time and data about the satellites’ position. Since the speed of radio waves is constant and independent of the satellite speed, the time delay between when the satellite transmits a signal and the receiver receives it is proportional to the distance from the satellite to the receiver. A GPS receiver monitors multiple satellites and solves equations to determine the precise position of the receiver and its deviation from true time. 

Once it has information about how long it took or how far away the three other satellites are, your GPS receiver can pinpoint your location using a process called trilateration.

Trilateration works by finding your position on the globe once the location of the GPS satellites orbiting the Earth and their distance from your location are known. If the GPS receiver detected the signal from only one satellite, all we could tell is that we could be anywhere on the surface of a sphere of radius equal to the calculated distance from the satellite. If we only received signals from two satellites (satellite A and B, for example), we could tell that we are somewhere along the circle drawn by the intersections of the spheres described by the two signals. But with a third satellite signal, we can tell the exact location of the GPS device because the three spheres will intersect in a single point.

Data from a fourth satellite—or even more than four satellites—further enhance the precision of the point's location and allows factors such as elevation or, in the case of aircraft, altitude to also be calculated. GPS receivers today routinely track four to seven satellites simultaneously and use the trilateration principle to analyze the information. 

So how did this sophistication begin?


It all started with Sputnik. The Cold War was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in every conceivable arenaeven space. When the Soviets launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, it created intense fear and anxiety among the US public that the Soviet Union had surpassed the technological achievements of the United States. American scientists then scrambled to track the Soviet satellite. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, discovered that they could track early satellites' positions based on the Doppler Effect, which was the same thing that makes the timbre of a car horn change as the car rushes by. On the other hand, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also noticed that the frequency of the radio signals transmitted by the small Russian satellite increased as it approached and decreased as it moved away. 

Owing to this anxiety, American scientists found out that satellites could be tracked from the ground by measuring the frequency of the radio signals they emitted, and conversely, the locations of receivers on the ground could be tracked by their distance from the satellites. 

In 1959, the United States Navy then conducted satellite navigation experiments to track US submarines carrying nuclear missiles. The first real satellite navigation system, which it called TRANSIT, used six satellites orbiting the poles for US submarines to observe the satellite changes using the Doppler Effect and pinpoint the submarine's location within a matter of minutes.

Military-sponsored research continued into the 1970s and ’80s as scientists tried to improve the signal precision, reliability, and speed of satellite navigation. In the early ’70s, the Department of Defense (DoD) wished to ensure a robust, stable satellite navigation system. Embracing previous ideas from US Navy scientists, the DoD decided to use satellites to support their proposed navigation system. The branches of the military, after having worked on a GPS system for the past 11 years, then followed through and launched its first Navigation System with Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR) satellite in 1978. Technology switched from tracking Doppler shifts to using triangulation and signal timing. The longer a signal took to reach a GPS receiver, the farther away the satellite was at the moment the signal was sent. 

The military launched 11 more test satellites into space in the late ’70s to test the NAVSTAR system, which by then was called simply the GPS system. Some of these satellites, starting in 1980, carried sensors designed to detect the launch or detonation of nuclear devices.

Although a global positioning system had been inaugurated in 1973, it was highly secretive and strictly the preserve of the US military. But shortly after the Russians shot down Korean Air flight 007, killing 269 people, after it wandered off course into Soviet airspace over the Kamchatka Peninsula, President Reagan offered to let all civilian commercial aircraft use the global positioning system to improve navigation and air safety. 

By 1985, the US government contracted with private corporations to develop airborne, shipboard, and portable GPS receivers. A project to create a miniature GPS receiver successfully ended in 1991, replacing the previous 16-kilogram military receivers with a 1.25-kilogram handheld receiver.

However, the Defense Department feared that military adversaries might use the system to their advantage. In 1990, they decided to deliberately decrease the accuracy of the system. In December 1993, the global positioning system achieved initial operational capability for the military, and the 24-satellite system in orbit became fully operational in early 1994. 

Surprisingly, it was in the year 1999 when a mobile phone manufacturer, Benefon, launched the first commercially available GPS phone, a safety phone called the Benefon Esc! The GSM phone was sold mainly in Europe, but many other GPS-enabled mobile phones would follow. By the start of the 21st century, the Department of Defense ended the purposeful degradation of GPS accuracy, which it implemented in 1990. Overnight, GPS became ten times more accurate, and all kinds of industriesfrom fishing to forestry and freight managementsoon began using it. This began the era when GPS receiver technology became much smaller, cheaper, and more accessible that private companies began producing personal GPS products.

During this time, cellphones and tablets progressed right along with the use of GPS navigation technology. Mobile phones were able to perform GPS navigation and tracking processes using apps. More and more commercial vehicles were also equipped with dashboard computerized systems and communications platforms, such as Qualcomm, Tom Tom, and Garvin.

By the mid-2000s, GPS navigation technology had evolved into tracking systems. This was in part due to the improvements of machine to machine (M2M) communications, which is the predecessor to the Internet of Things (IoT). As GPS tracking became increasingly accurate, so did cloud-based technology and sensor parameters. By 2015, high-quality GPS receivers were able to provide horizontal accuracy of better than 11 feet.

At present, the US Air Force manages a constellation of 31 operational GPS satellites, plus three decommissioned satellites that can be reactivated if needed. 


Today, GPS is a radionavigation system owned by the US Government and operated by the United States Air Force to meet national defense, homeland security, civil, commercial, and scientific needs. In the age of the internet, it has been used as receivers for directions and for navigation apps that tell us where we are and how to move between points. 

Still, it is extensively used in aviation, the military, and marine navigation. Various other industries continue to benefit from the technology as well due to its ability to decrease operating costs and increase productivity and proficiency. Most importantly, it provides everyone an extra layer of security to protect both loved ones and assets.

Here are just a few of the industries benefiting from GPS.

This sector has been using GPS devices to operate. Farmers have a specific season for planting, weeding, and harvesting. Taking advantage of the patterns of seasons, they put GPS receivers on their tractors and other farming equipment. This allows them to map plantations and ensure that they return to precisely the same time when planting or weeding in the next season. This strategy is effective especially in weather with less visibility. More so, the accuracy that GPS brings makes it suitable for mapping soil sample locations.

Modern-day aircraft use GPS receivers to provide real-time aircraft position that pilots and passengers need to know. They also provide a map of various destinations depending on where the aircraft operates. They also use the app to track the aircraft and direct the pilot in the case a change in the weather conditions occur or any other issue arises. 

Fleet tracking technology is one of the fastest-growing GPS navigation use cases. GPS fleet trackers help fleet managers determine the location of their vehicles, set up the shortest routes that employees can take for faster delivery, and update drivers with real-time driving directions. More importantly, it enables managers to respond quickly to emergencies and provide accident-tracking roadside assistance. Fleet tracking technology like telematics is exceptionally increasing fleet efficiency. Telematics helps with gathering fleet vehicle data about drivers’ driving habits. Data on too much acceleration or speeding allows the fleet manager to make informed decisions about training drivers on reducing fuel consumption by driving the vehicle at optimum speed. Because of this data, fleet tracking technology has helped reduce fuel consumption by 10-15% annually.

GPS devices are now widely used during investigations to catch criminals. The police also use it to keep track of people who feel that their lives may be in danger. For today’s private investigators, GPS trackers are an invaluable asset when it comes to surveillance. Not only does it provide concrete evidence, GPS tracking devices are safe, efficient, and cost-effective.

GPS is used by boat captains to help them navigate through waters to their destinations easier. GPS helps them make sure that the channels are clear. They also use these devices to ensure that there are no obstacles that can hinder navigation. They are even required in marine departments since they are used to map and position dredging operations in rivers, sandbars, and wharves to ensure that other boats are aware of how deep they should get.

The US Department of Defense was the first to develop the GPS app system, and since then, the system has been adopted by numerous military forces around the world. Other countries have even decided to develop their satellite navigation networks as a defense mechanism during war times. Today, these are used to determine the location of vehicles and missiles, especially during a war. 

There are many scientific applications of GPS beyond just navigational matters. GPS devices are used in different fields including physics, biology, and earth science. It can be used to help detect structural problems in roads and buildings, as well as predict natural disasters like earthquakes through the monitoring of tectonic plate movement. Scientists around the world have also been using radio signals from GPS satellites to learn more about the atmosphere of our own planet. It has been used to study wildlife, terrain, and human infrastructure.

GPS tracking devices are used by many to track themselves or those that matter to them like their loved ones, pets, and property. Soon after GPS was made available for civilian use, several manufacturers introduced GPS trackers that were intended to allow the tracking of vehicles and other assets. 

GPS devices are used in the telecommunications industry to provide users with accuracy, reliability, and stability of their operations. Although clocks can provide this, GPS supports the derivation of synchronized time zones with the help of the satellite signals.

Types of GPS

There are two main types of GPS trackers: passive trackers and active GPS trackers. Passive GPS and active GPS are equally beneficial and have both helped users in more ways than one, but the way they work differs.

Passive GPS

Passive GPS trackers do not give you real-time updates. The information gathered by these devices are stored through an internal memory. Most passive trackers do not need a monthly fee, so you can expect this to be a more economical option compared to active trackers.

Who can take advantage of passive GPS trackers?

  • Fitness and outdoor enthusiasts. Joggers or mountaineers use data loggers to calculate the distance they covered.
  • Parents of teenagers. Parents may use this to monitor their teenager’s driving habits.
  • Fleet managers. Fleet managers can use the data gathered by passive GPS trackers to monitor their employees’ and drivers’ behavior.

Active GPS

Active GPS trackers, on the other hand, process and deliver data in real time. If you purchase one of these, you get notifications and alerts anywhere, giving you a hawk’s-eye view of every movement that the tracked subject does. 

Understandably, active GPS trackers cost more than the passive ones, but the price is justified by the reliable software application that comes along with them and the convenience of being able to access real-time data.

Who can take advantage of active GPS trackers?

  • Caregivers. Caregivers are better off with active GPS technology to track the elderly and make sure that they are within a safe perimeter. Using the device, they can also track them down easily in case they wander off.
  • Parents of children. Nearly 90% of missing children simply misunderstood directions or miscommunicated their plans, are lost or have run away. Active GPS trackers can greatly help parents monitor their kids’ whereabouts, especially during emergencies.
  • Parents of teenage drivers. Active GPS trackers notify parents on any distress signals sent by teenage drivers using an active GPS tracker.
  • Pet owners. A missing pet is every owner’s worst nightmare. More and more dog owners have started to invest in active GPS trackers to locate their wandering pets.
  • Drone enthusiasts. Drones fly away unexpectedly for various reasons. To eliminate this worry, drone enthusiasts mount real-time GPS trackers on their prized drones to easily track them.
  • Fleet managers. To better increase productivity and profit, fleet managers opt for the precision provided by real-time data.

Legal Issues on the Use of GPS Trackers

GPS devices are relatively new technology, and the legality of their use may vary by state. Even federal courts are split on how to handle the technology. If you have any legal issues involving a GPS tracking device, you should consult with a criminal lawyer for advice. This is particularly true if you feel that the police have wrongfully used GPS evidence against you. An attorney near you will be able to explain the GPS laws of your state and what sort of rights and remedies you have.

For starters, it's entirely legal to use a GPS tracking device on any vehicle or asset you own. But before you use a GPS tracking device on someone else's person, vehicle, or property, you should do a little research on current federal, state, and local laws. Laws are continually being readdressed as new cases are popping up in the legal world, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on these changes. As of now, here's what private citizens need to know about GPS tracking and the law.

It's generally legal to use a GPS tracking device if

  • you or your organization own the vehicle or asset to be tracked;
  • you own the asset that might be taken without your permission;
  • your children (under 18) are the focus of the tracking; or
  • you are tracking a car or asset for the purpose of legal repossession in the event of a default on a loan.

On the other hand, it’s only illegal if you are not the owner of the car and do not have consent to track it.


Over the years, GPS trackers have been used for various reasons and by various types of businesses. Large and small businesses and people from all walks of life have benefited from this technology, sharing their stories and recommending these devices to their connections.

Survivors from a sinking boat

During the night of October 1, 2011, a boat sank with two people aboard in the heavily fogged Norwegian archipelago. The boat sank in less than one minute. Thanks to lifejackets and a GPS tracker, Arne Bauer and Rune Jensen, who swam to a small island, were found within 30 minutes. The GPS tracker reported the position of both men on board the boat and on the island. Both men were transported by ambulance to Tønsberg, very cold, but alive.

Air conditioning units

A construction company in Jacksonville, Florida, recovered more than $100k in stolen air conditioner units. Overwhelmed with the thefts and losses, the company started adding GPS trackers to their outdoor units. They then set up geofence alerts to be notified when their equipment would exit a specific area, and before they knew it, they were notified that their air conditioning units were not in the same place they had left them.

After following the location from the GPS, they were able to track down 60 other stolen items that were being stored in a warehouse.

Tracking down a robber

Dave Crooks, a teacher from Calgary, Alberta, almost regularly misplaced his iPhone in his house. In order to avoid completely losing it, he installed a GPS tracker on his device. One time, his phone was stolen together with his car keys and wallet. Thanks to the GPS device installed on his iPhone, he was able to trace it.

He immediately called 911. Using GPS tracking, Crooks provided real-time location updates to the officer in the police car. The suspect was traced to a church parking lot. Crooks’s phone was returned to him after just one hour.

Truck theft

Owners of LeadingEdge Plumbing & Rooter in Sylmar, California, had one of their vehicles stolen. When it happened, there weren’t any GPS devices in place to help them track down the stolen vehicle right away. That meant by the time it was finally recovered, the company had permanently lost $40,000 in tools and equipment because they had no way of figuring out where the truck had gone after the thief took it.

Afraid that they would have to see another one of the trucks go missing, never to be recovered, they decided to purchase a GPS vehicle tracking device. A year later, another thief tried to drive away one of their trucks, but because they now have a tracking system installed, their technicians were quick to notice the problem and immediately rang the police and the home office.

The team watched on their GPS online dashboard as the little dot representing their stolen vehicle moved around the city. Communicating this information in real-time to the police over the phone, they were able to guide the cops—including a police helicopter—right to the thief’s location. Less than one hour later, the thief was caught, the truck was recovered, tools were saved, and this time, nearly $100,000 in equipment made its way safely home to their headquarters.

The Best GPS Trackers You Can Buy Today

Choosing the right GPS tracker is like choosing a phone. Since everybody has different needs, it is best if you start by determining the main purpose for your purchase. Nonetheless, if you want to buy one for yourself but don’t know which ones are worth the bucks, we prepared a list of the top GPS trackers you can purchase today.


Small and lightweight, Trackimo is a tracking device with battery life that lasts as long as the most expensive ones you can find on the market. To preserve power, it utilizes a motion-activated sensor, automatically going to sleep whenever the device stops moving and waking up again once it has moved. And unlike most of the trackers sold right now, Trackimo uses a total of four different tracking technologies, namely GPS, GSM, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, to determine the accurate location of anything you wish to track worldwide, indoor or outdoor.

This monitoring device can be used to monitor kids, teens, spouses, the elderly, pets, luggage, cars, motorcycles, fleets, boats, drones, deliveries, assets, and many more. This is evident in the goodies you get aside from the tracker in the box delivered to you: a silicone case that makes Trackimo water-resistant, a lanyard, an optional Velcro backing, a magnetic attachment, and a magnetized mini screwdriver to help you switch those out. For tracking loved ones, the tracker features a clearly labeled SOS button, which, once activated, alerts authorities or certain individuals chosen by the user through sending an alert message via SMS or email, containing the user’s exact location including directions. Trackimo’s app is also known to be the best of any of the GPS trackers; it’s extremely easy to create geofences, check location history, adjust settings, and toggle alerts.

Overall, Trackimo easily outperforms several other GPS trackers that cost up to two or three times as much, being free to use for the first 12 months and only $5/month after that, making it the most cost-effective way to track and protect your loved ones and your prized possessions.


Spytec’s accuracy is solid, and battery life lasts 2 weeks. It relies on an outdated 2G network and T-Mobile coverage, however, so for you to be able to take advantage of its tracking abilities, you'll have to make sure you're going to use it in an area covered by T-Mobile.

Like most of its competitors, the Spy Tec STI GL300 has a zones feature. This allows you to designate geofences and set speed limits, making it a good unit for tracking the habits of employees or teenage drivers. It also features an SOS button, which can be set to call multiple contacts in case of an emergency.

Spy Tec’s tracking device has a variable fee structure, meaning the more you pay, the more tracking interval options you have. The different tiers of Spy Tec’s GL300 data plans are essentially the same, with the only major difference being the frequency the device sends updates. At the basic level ($25/month), you can track the device up to once every minute. At the most advanced level ($45/month), you can track it up to once every five seconds, which is actually quite a price to pay for intervals 55 seconds less. Tracking a device at such a quick rate should not be a huge priority for you, unless you plan to track a lot of cars.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this tracker is its outstanding battery life. An accelerometer inside the device turns it off when it's not moving. However, the tracker’s size compensates for that much battery. The GL300 is bulkier, more conspicuous, and less visually attractive than some of its competitors.

In terms of basic functionality and battery life, Spy Tec is a good option. But if you just search the market for other trackers, there are a number out there with more features and a more attractive service plan pricing.


SCOUT Universal is a vehicle GPS tracker with a very affordable monthly service charge of $8.33 per month. SCOUT can withstand water and mud conditions that motorcycles and ATVs undergo, making it a popular choice among adventure seekers. Its device boasts a GPS chip, cellular radio, Bluetooth tracking, accelerometer, and a magnetometer. Its battery lasts only three days, though, with continuous usage. Good thing is, since it's designed for vehicles, the SCOUT can be hardwired and hidden in less than 10 minutes on any motorcycle. Using it for loved ones will mean constant charging through the week though. Note that using SCOUT’s battery save mode prolongs battery life by pulling back the power from the GPS and cell modules, making it less accurate. Another downside to using it for family is the glaring lack of an SOS button. If you’re looking for trackers to protect your kids, opt for another device.

On a brighter note, the package brings you various attachment accessories to choose from, a charging adapter, a USB cable, and a universal hardwire kit. Like all trackers, SCOUT enables you to create geofences, remembers your previous locations, and offers an app with regular updates for new or enhanced features. All these inclusions make this unit a great purchase for its intended purpose.


If not for the absence of the manufacturer’s logo, PrimeTracking’s tracker is entirely similar-looking to Americaloc’s GL300W. However, PrimeTracking’s newest release uses 4G LTE network and gives you updates every 10 seconds, whichever data plan you choose. The standard plan is priced at $25 a month, which isn’t bad considering that there are 3G GPS trackers that cost way more but with the same number of features.

PrimeTracking so far impresses its users as much as Americaloc does, especially due to the “100% risk-free purchase” they guarantee to every customer. They do not charge for activation or cancellation either. However, since it’s almost exactly identical with the Americaloc GL300W, there are still, although fairly scarce, complaints about inaccuracy due to certain obstacles in a city and the glaring lack of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth tracking. International tracking is also relative as some countries certainly do not have 4G, despite the brand’s claims of being able to track anyone or anything from anywhere in the world. 

PrimeTracking’s device costs only $50, which is actually as affordable as Amcrest’s 2G device. In a nutshell, PrimeTracking’s 4G LTE tracker is a good buy if you really need tracking updates as quick as 10 seconds.


Qbit’s GPS tracker are made for kids, the elderly, and people with special needs. This tiny device features an SOS button, speed dials, geofences, and a water-resistant case. It also has a mic and a speaker for two-way communication and voice monitoring. Qbit only works in the US, Canada, and Mexico, however, which means international tracking is currently not an option.

The battery life requires frequent charging, as it lasts only 3 days at most. Some buyers complained that a fully charged battery died after 5 hours of continuous use. Reports of bugs are also quite common, and the app could use some improvements in terms of interface and commands. Qbit uses only a 2G network connection as well, which is bad news for those living in locations where 2G will soon be phased out completely.

Still, Qbit is rather affordable; the device costs $45 and the monthly subscription is at $15, so you clearly get what you paid for. Nonetheless, the price still couldn’t beat Trackimo’s features, versatility, inclusions, and data plans. If you’re looking for optimal functionality at an affordable price, Trackimo still tops the list.

Author information:
Jared Hoven
Jared Hoven

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