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Everything You Need to Know About GPS Tracking

Everything You Need to Know About GPS Tracking

Lynn Mendez

From ancient landmarks to handheld devices, GPS revolutionized navigation by providing precise location data globally.

In ancient times, people used monuments and handmade maps to avoid getting lost. Today, a handheld device can determine your exact location on Earth.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) was first used by the US Department of Defence. This system consists of 31 satellites in orbit, providing geolocation and time information to GPS devices.

Key Takeaways 

  • GPS revolutionized navigation, evolving from ancient landmarks to modern handheld devices.
  • It was initially developed for military use and now serves various industries.
  • GPS works using signals from satellites to determine precise locations.
  • The technology has numerous applications, including agriculture, aviation, fleet management, law enforcement, and personal security.
  • There are passive and active GPS trackers, each suited for different needs.

How GPS Works

All 31 GPS satellites are solar-powered, orbiting Earth at about 20,000 kilometers and completing two rotations each day. Physical distance measurement is impractical, so we use the speed of signals sent by the satellites and the time they were sent. Satellites constantly send radio signals containing the current time and their position. Since the speed of radio waves is constant, the time delay between sending and receiving the signal indicates the distance to the satellite. A GPS receiver monitors multiple satellites and solves equations to determine its precise position and time deviation.

The GPS receiver uses trilateration to pinpoint your location. Trilateration calculates your position once the locations and distances of GPS satellites are known. With one satellite, you could be anywhere on a sphere's surface. With two satellites, you could be anywhere along the circle where the two spheres intersect. With three satellites, the intersection of the three spheres gives your exact location.

Data from a fourth satellite or more further refines this position and can calculate factors like elevation or altitude. Modern GPS receivers track four to seven satellites simultaneously, using trilateration to analyse the data accurately.


The development of GPS began with Sputnik. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, causing fear in the US. Scientists from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, used the Doppler Effect to track Sputnik. Similarly, MIT scientists noted changes in the frequency of Sputnik’s radio signals as it moved.

American scientists realized satellites could be tracked by measuring the frequency of their radio signals, and vice versa. In 1959, the US Navy used this concept to track submarines with a system called TRANSIT, using six satellites and the Doppler Effect.

Research continued into the 1970s and '80s to improve satellite navigation precision. In the early '70s, the Department of Defense (DoD) wanted a stable navigation system, leading to the launch of the first NAVSTAR satellite in 1978. This system used signal timing and triangulation instead of Doppler shifts. By the late '70s, 11 more test satellites were launched, and the system was simply called GPS.

Although GPS was initially for military use, President Reagan opened it to civilian aircraft after a Soviet incident in 1983. By 1985, the US contracted private companies to develop GPS receivers, leading to a significant size reduction from 16 kilogram to 1.25 kilogram in devices by 1991.

The Defense Department reduced GPS accuracy in 1990 to prevent adversaries from exploiting it. However, by 1993, GPS achieved initial operational capability for the military, and the full 24-satellite system was operational by 1994.

In 1999, Benefon launched the first GPS phone, and GPS technology became widely accessible. The DoD stopped degrading GPS accuracy in 2000, enhancing its precision for various industries. By the 2000s, GPS technology had advanced, leading to tracking systems and integration with mobile devices.

Today, the US Air Force manages 31 operational GPS satellites, with three additional satellites available if needed.

Uses of GPS Tracker

PS is a radionavigation system owned by the US Government and operated by the United States Air Force. It serves national defense, homeland security, civil, commercial, and scientific needs. In the internet age, GPS is widely used in navigation apps for directions and location tracking.

GPS is extensively used in aviation, military, and marine navigation. It also benefits various other industries by decreasing operating costs and increasing productivity. Additionally, GPS provides an extra layer of security for protecting loved ones and assets.

Here are some industries benefiting from GPS:


Farmers use GPS devices on tractors and other equipment to operate efficiently during planting, weeding, and harvesting seasons. By using GPS, they can map plantations and ensure precise returns to the same locations each season, even in poor visibility. GPS accuracy is also useful for mapping soil sample locations.


Modern aircraft use GPS receivers to provide real-time position information to pilots and passengers. GPS also maps various destinations and assists in tracking the aircraft. In case of weather changes or other issues, GPS helps direct the pilot.

Fleet Management

Fleet tracking is a rapidly growing use of GPS. GPS fleet trackers help managers locate vehicles, set up the shortest routes, and provide real-time driving directions. They also enable quick emergency response and accident-tracking assistance. Telematics, a part of fleet tracking, gathers data on drivers' habits, helping managers reduce fuel consumption by optimizing driving behavior. This technology has reduced fuel consumption by 10-15% annually.

Law Enforcement

GPS devices are widely used in investigations to catch criminals and to protect individuals who feel threatened. For private investigators, GPS trackers are invaluable for surveillance, providing concrete evidence efficiently and cost-effectively.

Marine Navigation

Boat captains use GPS to navigate waters more easily and ensure clear channels. GPS helps avoid obstacles and is essential in marine departments for mapping and positioning dredging operations, ensuring other boats are aware of safe depths.


The US Department of Defense developed the GPS system, which has since been adopted by military forces worldwide. Other countries have developed their own satellite navigation networks for defense. GPS is used to determine the location of vehicles and missiles, especially during wartime.

Scientific Research

GPS is used in various scientific fields, including physics, biology, and earth science. It helps detect structural problems in roads and buildings and predicts natural disasters like earthquakes by monitoring tectonic plate movement. Scientists use GPS signals to study the atmosphere, wildlife, terrain, and human infrastructure.


GPS tracking devices are used to track loved ones, pets, and property. After GPS became available for civilian use, manufacturers introduced trackers for vehicles and other assets.


In telecommunications, GPS provides accuracy, reliability, and stability. It supports synchronized time zones using satellite signals, enhancing operational precision.

Types of GPS

There are two main types of GPS trackers: passive and active. Both are beneficial but work differently.

Passive GPS

Passive GPS trackers do not provide real-time updates. They store information internally and are generally more economical since they don't require monthly fees.

Who can take advantage of Passive GPS trackers?

  • Fitness and outdoor enthusiasts: Track distance covered during activities like jogging or mountaineering.
  • Parents of teenagers: Monitor driving habits.
  • Fleet managers: Monitor employee and driver behaviour.

    Active GPS

    Active GPS trackers provide real-time data, notifications, and alerts, offering comprehensive tracking of movements. They are more expensive than passive trackers due to their advanced software and real-time data access.

    Who can take advantage of active GPS trackers?

    • Caregivers: Track the elderly and ensure their safety, especially if they wander off.
    • Parents of children: Monitor children’s whereabouts, especially during emergencies.
    • Parents of teenage drivers: Receive distress signals and track driving habits.
    • Pet owners: Locate missing pets.
    • Drone enthusiasts: Track drones to prevent loss.
    • Fleet managers: Increase productivity and profit with precise, real-time data.

      Legal Issues on the Use of GPS Trackers

      The legality of using GPS trackers varies by state, and federal courts are divided on the issue. If you have legal concerns involving GPS tracking, consult a criminal lawyer, especially if police have used GPS evidence against you. An attorney can explain the GPS laws in your state and your rights.

      Using a GPS tracking device on any vehicle or asset you own is entirely legal. However, before using a GPS tracker on someone else's person, vehicle, or property, research current federal, state, and local laws. Laws are frequently updated, so staying informed is crucial.

      It is legal to use a GPS tracker if:

      • You own the vehicle or asset.
      • You own the asset that might be taken without permission.
      • You are tracking your children (under 18).
      • You are tracking a vehicle or asset for legal repossession.

      It is illegal to use a GPS tracker on someone else’s vehicle or property without their consent.


      Over the years, GPS trackers have been used for various purposes by different businesses and individuals, who have shared their positive experiences.

      Survivors from a sinking boat

      On October 1, 2011, a boat sank in the foggy Norwegian archipelago with Arne Bauer and Rune Jensen aboard. Thanks to lifejackets and a GPS tracker, they were found within 30 minutes after swimming to a small island. The GPS tracker reported their positions, and both men were safely transported to Tonsberg.

      Air conditioning units

      A construction company in Jacksonville, Florida, recovered over $100k in stolen air conditioner units. After frequent thefts, they added GPS trackers to their units and set up geofence alerts. When units moved from their designated areas, the company tracked them down, recovering 60 other stolen items from a warehouse.

      Tracking down a robber

      Dave Crooks from Calgary, Alberta, installed a GPS tracker on his iPhone to avoid losing it. When his phone, car keys, and wallet were stolen, he traced his phone using the GPS tracker. Crooks called 911 and provided real-time location updates to the police, who recovered his phone from a church parking lot within an hour.

      Truck theft

      Owners of Leading Edge Plumbing & Rooter in Sylmar, California, had a vehicle stolen and lost $40,000 in tools and equipment because they had no GPS tracking. Afterward, they installed GPS trackers. A year later, another theft attempt occurred, but the GPS system allowed them to notify the police and recover the truck and $100,000 in equipment within an hour.

      The Best GPS Trackers You Can Buy Today

      Choosing the right GPS tracker depends on your needs. Here are some top recommendations:


      Trackimo is a small, lightweight tracking device with excellent battery life. It uses GPS, GSM, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth for accurate location tracking indoors and outdoors. The motion-activated sensor preserves power by sleeping when stationary and waking when in motion.


      • Monitoring kids, teens, spouses, the elderly, pets, luggage, vehicles, fleets, boats, drones, deliveries, and assets.


      • Water-resistant silicone case, lanyard, Velcro backing, magnetic attachment, and mini screwdriver.
      • SOS button for emergency alerts via SMS or email with the user’s location and directions.
      • Easy-to-use app for creating geofences, checking location history, adjusting settings, and toggling alerts.

      Trackimo is cost-effective, free for the first 12 months, and $5/month afterward. It offers a reliable and affordable way to track and protect loved ones and possessions.


      Spytec offers solid accuracy and a two-week battery life. It relies on the 2G network and T-Mobile coverage, so it’s best used in areas with strong T-Mobile service.


      • Geofences and speed limits: Ideal for tracking employee or teenage driver habits.
      • SOS button: Can call multiple contacts in an emergency.
      • Variable fee structure:
        • Basic plan ($25/month): Updates every minute.
        • Advanced plan ($45/month): Updates every five seconds.


      • Excellent battery life with an accelerometer to conserve power.


      • Bulky design.
      • Limited to the 2G network.
      • Higher cost for frequent updates.

      Spytec is a good option for basic tracking needs, but other trackers may offer more features and better service plan pricing.


      SCOUT Universal is a vehicle GPS tracker with an affordable monthly service charge of $8.33. It’s durable and withstands water and mud, making it popular among adventure seekers.


      • Technologies: GPS chip, cellular radio, Bluetooth tracking, accelerometer, and magnetometer.
      • Installation: Can be hardwired to vehicles in less than 10 minutes.
      • Battery life: Lasts three days with continuous use, but can be extended using battery save mode at the cost of accuracy.


      • Affordable service plan.
      • Durable for tough conditions.
      • Includes various attachment accessories, a charging adapter, USB cable, and universal hardwire kit.


      • Short battery life for non-vehicle use, requiring frequent charging.
      • Lacks an SOS button, making it less suitable for personal tracking.

      SCOUT is a great purchase for vehicle tracking but may not be ideal for tracking loved ones due to its battery life and lack of an SOS button.


      PrimeTracking’s newest GPS tracker uses the 4G LTE network, providing updates every 10 seconds regardless of the data plan. The standard plan costs $25 a month, offering a good value compared to some higher-priced 3G trackers.


      • 4G LTE network: Fast updates every 10 seconds.
      • Cost: $50 for the device.
      • Plan: $25/month with no activation or cancellation fees.
      • Guarantee: 100% risk-free purchase.


      • Affordable device and monthly plan.
      • Fast update intervals.
      • No additional fees for activation or cancellation.


      • Similar to Americaloc’s GL300W, with occasional inaccuracies in urban areas.
      • Lacks Wi-Fi and Bluetooth tracking.
      • Limited international tracking in areas without 4G coverage.

      PrimeTracking is a good choice for those needing frequent updates, offering a balance of affordability and performance.


      Qbit’s GPS tracker is designed for kids, the elderly, and people with special needs. It features an SOS button, speed dials, geofences, a water-resistant case, a mic, and a speaker for two-way communication and voice monitoring. It works only in the US, Canada, and Mexico.


      • SOS button: For emergencies.
      • Two-way communication: Mic and speaker for voice monitoring.
      • Geofences: Set safe zones.
      • Water-resistant case: Durable design.


      • Affordable: $45 for the device and $15/month subscription.


      • Short battery life: Lasts up to 3 days, with some reports of dying after 5 hours.
      • Common bugs: Users report issues with the app interface and commands.
      • Limited to 2G network: Incompatible with areas phasing out 2G.
      • Limited international use: Only works in the US, Canada, and Mexico.

      While Qbit is affordable, it lacks the versatility and features of other trackers like Trackimo. For optimal functionality at an affordable price, Trackimo remains a better option.


      GPS has advanced navigation from using traditional maps and other references to using satellites and other technology for location services. GPS technology, which was initially used for defence, is now applied in almost every industry to promote efficiency, safety, and security. The development of GPS, from its strategic military application in the Cold War period to its current usage by civilians, is beneficial and diverse.

      Presently, there are so many GPS trackers on the market that have been designed to meet various requirements, ranging from personal security to monitoring a fleet of vehicles. The future of GPS technology is bright, and further developments will bring more uses and benefits in the future.

      Author information:
      Lynn Mendez

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