4 Types of Tracking Devices Explained

by Joe Mueller on August 4, 2009

When you think about tracking devices these days your mind will automatically go to toward thinking about GPS. Our culture has enough exposure through experience, news shows like 60 Minutes, and crime show dramas that GPS tracking can be incredibly useful for law enforcement purposes. But we are also beginning to realize that the ability to have tracking devices on our person at all times is also a desirable condition. We think of how useful it would be to attach a GPS watch to an Alzheimer’s patient so that if they wander off they can be easily located by their family. Or we might see how beneficial it might be to be able to monitor our teen’s driving while they are out on the road using the family car. We may even see how easily a tracking unit could help us make a decision about whether or not a spouse is cheating on us, the location information provided by a data logging GPS confirming our suspicions about their fidelity.

With all this utility staring us in the face it is no wonder that we are becoming a GPS-centric society. New devices and new ways to track things are being introduced at an ever increasing pace. Tracking technology still has a long way to go, and as our ability to make more powerful satellites, more accurate time pieces, and more sensitive GPS receivers continues to grow our ability to do more with tracking devices will increase. As this happens, more and more of our tracking dreams will become a reality.

In the mean time, lets take a look at the current state of tracking devices to help us get an idea of what is possible and where things might end up going to.

Cell Phone Tracking Devices

iPhone GPS Tracking

The first tracking device that most people are going to recognize is the cell phone. This is probably the most widely used tracking device today but very few people actually realize that there cell phone can be used to track their movements. All a cell phone needs is a signal from a cell phone tower and to be turned on for it to be one of the most powerful tracking devices on the market.

The way this particular device works is going to depend on your cell phone make and on the provider that you use, but you can summarize how each works by bringing up the principle of trilateration. How this works is that the cell phone does some fancy math to determine its location based upon the know location of either a cell phone tower or a GPS satellite, telling the mobile phone exactly where it is at any given moment in time. (I have explained this concept in my post about how GPS tracking watches work, so you can see that article if you want a more in depth explanation.)

This has obvious implications as a personal tracking device. Since most people use cell phones in some capacity almost everyone is going to be able to be tracked in this way. Now some phones and phone service providers like to make the tracking function of their phones widely know – for example the iPhone, Blackberry, and other smartphones will shout this information from the top of their lungs – but there are a lot of other phones that offer this functionality that can be used as tracking devices on a consumer level. The reason that I say on the consumer level is that the police and other first responders have the ability to track cell phones of all varieties, thanks in part to a 2005 law requiring this functionality for emergency response purposes.

Some mobile providers will offer consumer grade tracking on their phones as part of a family tracking plan. I have seen rates for this starting at $5 a month – which is really inexpensive for those who already have the data plan that these programs often require. But there are also ways to get GPS tracking on your cell phone for free. I have compiled a list of free GPS applications for cell phones, but these services are generally restricted to certain phones and require that you have a robust data plan to take full advantage of their functionality. They are extremely powerful and cheap, but even cheap GPS tracking can be expensive if you can’t afford a data plan for your phone.

Vehicle Tracking Devices

Another type of tracking device that people are going to think about are vehicle tracking devices. These are really commercial grade trackers that offer a whole host of important fleet management features for businesses and corporations. Some of the better devices can do much more than simply track the movements of a vehicle. They can:

  • Give directions to a driver, making routing and other business related activities much easier and much more efficient.
  • Monitor important vehicle metrics like speed and direction as well as other vehicle performance indicators like the ease of stops and starts.
  • Cute an idling engine that has been running too long.
  • Turn off vehicle lights that have been left on by a driver.
  • Give GPS coordinates to the authorities in case of a theft or medical emergency.
  • Serve as an electronic and positional time card, helping workers work harder while on the clock.

The thing about vehicle tracking systems is that they are anything but cheap. The tracking device itself will run you several hundred dollars depending on the level of functionality that you want the device to have.  GPS bus tracking devices are going to be different than GPS fleet tracking devices because they will do different things. They will therefore have different costs associated with them.

Another things about vehicle tracking that is going to raise the price a bit is paying for the tracking service with your provider. This can range from tens of dollars per unit to hundreds of dollars per unit. Most companies are going to give you a reduced price for each unit you track, but there is little you can do to reduce costs here expect for try and find a free GPS tracking software package. These do exist, but instead of money you will have to invest time to get the system to work just like you want it. For some individuals it is just going to better to go with a paid tracking service.

Car Tracking Devices

Very similar to vehicle tracking devices, car tracking devices are used track a car or vehicle but they often lack some of the functionality that the more commercial grade vehicle trackers might have. For example, a car tracker usually doesn’t have the ability to lock and unlock doors, cut the engine, or notify a driver if they are idling too long. A vehicle tracker does this because that is the market it is catered to (businesses with fleets of vehicles it wants to monitor) while car trackers appeal to individuals who want to see where their car is or to recover a stolen vehicle. In the world of GPS car tracking, there are two main uses: to monitor an individual’s activity or to recover a stolen vehicle.

There are a few different reasons why a person might want to install a GPS tracking device inside of a car for the purpose of people monitoring. One reason is that the person might be a suspect in an ongoing police investigation and the police want to monitor their activity without the cost associated with physical surveillance. Using GPS is a lot more cost effective, and as long as a warrant has been obtained, they can track an individual for as long as the court deems appropriate.

Zoombak GPS Tracker

Another reason might be to keep track of a teen’s driving habits. By installing a GPS device in their car you can get a lot of information about how they drive, where they drive, and when they drive. This can be used to enforce family driving rules and create a safe environment for them to drive in. Teen drivers have one of the highest incidents of fatal car crashes of the age groups recorded by insurance companies, so finding a way to help them drive safely should be the top priority of any parent. For some, this means using a GPS tracking device as an aid.

Still another reason to install a car tracking device would be to see if a spouse is cheating on you. While most of the time a tracking device is only going to tell you where your spouse has been, this knowledge can be extremely useful in determining the truth about their actions. If they said they are going to a friends house but their car ends up somewhere else then you know that something might be going on with them. You can call them very innocently and ask them how so-and-so’s house is going and if they tell you that everything there is fine even though they are not there you might know that something is up with them and that you should maybe investigate things further.

For each of these uses you will notice that being able to do a lot of the stuff that GPS vehicle tracking can do is superfluous. What a person in this situation needs to do is be able to track the movements of a person – and not always in real time either. While it is nice to be able to track a teen in real time or to see if a spouse is cheating as it happens, a data logger will generally do just as a good.

However, when it comes to being able to recover a stolen vehicle having a real time GPS tracking device is going to be a good idea. That way, when the criminal takes away your vehicle the police can have real time tracking information that will lead them right to your property. That way the criminal can be caught and your property can be returned to you. One of the major theft recovery GPS tracking devices is LoJack and it has been around for years. It is very effective at helping police find stolen property.

GPS Tracking Watches

Finally, the last tracking device that we should talk about are <link>GPS tracking watches</link>. A GPS watch is exactly what it sounds like – a watch that has all the functionality of a GPS device. When you take a look at it, there are two main types of GPS tracking watches and each type has a corresponding use. There are watches that act as data loggers and there are watches that act as real time trackers.

Garmin 405 GPS Tracking Watch

A data logger might be something like the Garmin Forerunner 405. This is a fitness GPS tracking watch that is the top of the line and has tons of really cool features. It is great for serious athletes who want to take their training to the next level and is even better for multi-sport athletes. When paired with a heart rate monitor it provides some of the best workout metrics of any device on the market. It is also a stereotypical example of what a data logging GPS tracking watch is good for. The device logs workout information like speed, altitude, direction, total time working out, and heart rate. This watch is just a data logger marketed toward runners and is the ultimate fitness tracking device.

GuardianLion LEO GPS Tracking Watch

A real time tracker might look something more like the GuardianLion Leo. This is a full featured GPS tracking device that fits on your wrist. It combines the best of cell phone technology with the power of GPS location data to create the ultimate safety device for kids and those suffering from Alzheimer’s. It allows parents or caretakers to have a real time knowledge about the location of their charge and even allows them to get into contact with that individual through the watch itself! This is extremely powerful technology and until recently these watches were so bulky as to be comical. Apparently, the GuardianLion Leo is small enough to fit comfortably on a writs and actually looks something like a normal watch.

The Future of Tracking Devices

The future is going to be portable, personal tracking devices. As we can already see with the GPS tracking watches and cell phones, the technology is making great strides toward becoming more and more consumer friendly. It is being packaged and delivered in a way that is very palatable for consumers and this means that tracking devices are going to be here for a very long time and in many different forms. If I had to put money on one become dominate it would have to be the cell phone, but the future is by no means certain. We will just have to wait and see what happens – but I know this for sure, GPS is going to be a big part of my childrens’ lives and an even bigger part of their childrens’ lives.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 J Beasley March 14, 2010 at 9:17 pm

I need to track a small child who has a parent threatening to flee the country. What do you suggest. Child is 4 yrs old.

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2 Joe March 15, 2010 at 4:04 am

Hi J,

That is a tough one. Most personal GPS tracking devices that I am aware of tend to be more for parents that simply want to make sure that their child is going to be safe from danger for a day or two at a time. I may be wrong, but it sounds like that the child is with the parent who is threatening to leave the country. This will make it much more difficult for you to track your child because most real time personal tracking devices for kids only have a battery life of a few days at most.

If you have your child with you, I would probably recommend the Amber Alert GPS. It is small enough for children to be able to carry on them in a concealed way but still powerful enough to get the job done. The battery life will only get you through a couple of days, at most, so this device is definitely for parents who have their children with them every night so that you can recharge the battery while they sleep.

I hope things are worked out for you. My family is the one of the most important thing in the world to me, so I can understand the need to find the right solution.

-Joe

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3 Rob Melton May 31, 2010 at 6:17 pm

I have need of a tracking device able to track an outdoor art piece dedicated to the memory of our son in the event it is “borrowed”.

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4 Ellie June 3, 2010 at 10:25 am

Does anyone know of a doctor that can implant a gps chip in a child? I also have a fear that my child will be taken by his father. If his father sees anything on the child it will not be good.

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5 Joe June 3, 2010 at 11:17 am

Hi Ellie,

I am so sorry that there is a chance that the father of your child would take your child from you. That is terrible.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the technology exists to implant a GPS tracking device inside a person just yet – though I think that the uses of this type of technology would be very useful. I wrote GPS Tracking Implants: The Good where I outlined some of my thoughts about how this technology could be used for the good of people.

You might want to look into something like the Amber Alert GPS Tracking Device. While it is not an implant, it is really small and easily concealable. I hope that helps.

-Joe

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6 Lee Comeaux June 30, 2010 at 5:48 am

We own about 150 rolloff dumpsters and I am looking for a inexpensive way of tracking there location as we move them often.

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7 larry August 7, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Is there a gps watch totrack a kidnapped victim?

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8 Roxie Luce February 2, 2011 at 7:50 am

Im sorry Ellie, but I have heard of how you can implant a gps chip in a child.
Larry,I did find one over the weekend and use it when my friend steals my jewelry ate her house. Ellie and Larry you guyz email me. this is my email.

lulushiro@gmail.com

Night night

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9 Rhonda Milling March 1, 2011 at 7:42 am

My son is schizophrenic and lives in a group home. He is high functioning and my problem is he is diabetic. He recently was missing for 3 days. He had family locator on his phone , but did not have it with him. I have seen the GPS watches, but would need one that would require a special tool or key to unlock. He is 31 years old and very intelligent.

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10 Joe March 2, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Hi Rhonda,

Your position is certainly a unique one. I can definitely understand your desire to keep your son safe, but I’m afraid that there really isn’t a technological solution for you. Most of the tracking devices that are available for consumer consumption generally are geared toward tracking adults who don’t want to be tracked. Even devices that are tamper resistant have to settle for sending alerts when they experience tampering activity.

For example, GPS tracking anklets for criminals on house arrest only stay on because the criminal doesn’t want to get in trouble for break parole. If law enforcement hasn’t come up with a tracking device that will stay on a criminal who definitely needs to be tracked I’m not sure commercial providers are going to fair any better.

I think the cell phone is probably your most cost effective way to go. Too bad he doesn’t take it everywhere.

-Joe

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11 Pam April 11, 2011 at 10:48 am

I am interested in a specific type of tracking device for a research paper. Are there any available that can send a distress call to the local authorities, while providing GPS tracking abilities. Something like a lapel pin, that a nurse or student could wear at all times. In case of any type of danger, assault or kidnapping, etc. They could push the pin and a signal would be sent to authorities for immediate help, with GPS so they could be tracked. Some type of device that may not be noticed by assailants, but easy for the person to get to and send a signal for help?
Thank you, Pam

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12 Joe April 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Hi Pam,

There are several different devices like the one you described, but none of them are the size that you are thinking about. Two that immediately come to mind are the Amber Alert GPS and the SPOT Satellite Messenger,

The former is designed to be a personal tracking device for children that is small and compact, but it does suffer from short battery life when compared to some other, larger tracking devices.

The later is used mostly by outdoor types who stray far and wide from cell phone towers. It uses commericial communication satellites to send out SOS messages and has been instrumental in saving several lives in wilderness survival situations.

Both are much larger than a pin you can keep on a shirt or belt and will be easily found if you are searched by someone seeking to do you harm. Is that what you are concerned about?

- Joe

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13 Nancy June 18, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Hi. I’m looking for a specific kind of tracking device. im not too sure how to explain this either /: I have a feeling my husband is cheating on me. :( He has before and has lied many times in the past. Is there a tracking device I can put inside his phone like a little chip or something like that. And I could l watch him when he goes places from a computer or from my phone. He doesn’t have a smart phone it’s a regular samsung kind. I can’t use a car tracking device because he let’s his mom use it all the time. I hope some one can help me out here and hopefully understood me.

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14 Joe June 24, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Hi Nancy,

I know of no tracking device small enough to fit inside a cell phone. His Samsung phone might have a GPS already installed and you could try and download a tracking program onto his phone, but you would need to know if his phone is compatible with that program and you will need some sort of data plan in order for it work at all.

In general though, there might be a better, non-technological way to resolve the marital problem. I would strongly advise only going to technology as a last resort as it can sometimes be a cause of more problems when a healthier solution was available to you. I do not know your situation so I don’t know if this is your absolute last resort with your husband.

You should also be aware that the law in this area is probably about to change and there could be jail time and civil penalties that you could face for tracking someone without their consent.

I hope everything works out for you and that you find happiness.

- Joe

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15 Shelley Ahmed July 7, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Is there a way to figure out if my personal iphone is being tracked?

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16 Joe July 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Hi Shelley,

There is a way to see if you are being tracked. Simply look through your iPhone’s list of apps and see if there is anything that you see that you did not personally download. If there is, investigate it and find out what the app is and what it does. Descriptions in the app store and Google searches should be enough to educate you on whether or not that app is legit or is a tracking app.

There may also be a way to look at the files on the phone to see if there are files there for programs that would be tracking you.

- Joe

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17 oscar July 12, 2011 at 11:32 am

Hi;
Is there a tracking device that can locate different utilities ie. waterlines,electric lines, sewerlines etc…

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18 Joe July 22, 2011 at 10:47 am

Hi Oscar,

I don’t know of any device that has all the different utilities programed into it. If you need to know where your utilities are for digging then I suggest calling 811 and having the State come out and mark the different utility lines for you.

- Joe

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19 Poh Yin July 28, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Hi Joe,

I would like to have a GPS system that is some sort like car tracking system. It has to have the functions of recording of mileage, location, speeds of that particular car ( cannot be moved to the other car) and these data could be seen by the car owner and the company, so means that the data can be directly transferred to the company network system. What brand of GPS is the most suitable for me? How much is the price? Can it be used in Malaysia?
Thank you so much.

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20 Joe August 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Hi Poh Yin,

Most car tracking devices are installed in the car so that they are hardwired, so that would prevent a lot of the tampering you may seem to be worried about. A lot of fleet tracking companies provide the exact service you are requesting. If you have a mid to large fleet then you might want to contact them directly to see what type of price they are willing to service your fleet for.

- Joe

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21 verna September 12, 2011 at 6:50 am

Good afternoon, I wonder it you could help me we are looking for mobile/ portable unit which are battery operated. That we can trace ourselves,with a management system, security system recovery
are you able to quote me on something like the above request. Trust all is in order, thanks

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22 Joe October 28, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Hi Vera,

There are plenty of things like that. You might want to get a hold of a company that supplies what you are requesting, though. This is just an informational website. We don’t actually sell any products directly.

- Joe

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23 Ryan September 14, 2011 at 6:46 pm

hey everyone, im just woundering is there any sort of tracking device that can track police veichels?

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24 Joe October 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Hey Ryan,

Really any tracking device could be used to track a police vehicle. I think you’d probably get into trouble if you get caught – like prison trouble – so I don’t recommend it.

- Joe

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25 Grace Benveniste September 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm

My brother is diabetic and has had diabetic comas. We’re looking for tracking on a device (phone would be good) that he is not required to “accept” that he is being tracked — since if he is unconscious, he obviously cannot do anything. We would like to know his location if we cannot reach him. Any thoughts?

Verizon’s Family Locator requires that the person “accept” that they are being located.

Thank you for any ideas.

Grace

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26 Joe October 23, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Hi Grace,

There are several options. One that I just found that I think it pretty neat is Android Lost. It allows you to do a ton on the phone and seems like a really great app.

- Joe

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27 William January 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Hi there Joe,
Can the car tracking device co-host the reverse camera and sensor?
I live in Malaysia.
Any agent you recommend here?
Regards William.

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28 William January 8, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Hi Joe ,
Sorry, can I have 3 in 1 device namely tracking of places and the car location in case of stolen plus a reverse camera & sensor.

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29 Tanya March 10, 2012 at 12:19 pm

HI,
I am looking for a security device about the size of the adhesive tabs in retail clothing, that can be placed on personal property and tracked if stolen. I live in a community where things are stolen often. Are you aware of such devices?

Thanks

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30 Joe March 12, 2012 at 7:50 am

Hi Tanya,

There is no GPS tracking device that is going to be that small. There might be some RFID chips that you can attack to all sorts of things that will help police or pawn shops identify the item and be able to return it to you, but that requires the thief to turn the item into a pawn shop.

- Joe

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31 Alex March 29, 2012 at 10:11 am

Hi, we are on Ice Cream Factory to deliver on a different branches..but some delivery driver going somewhere and causing to delay the products from factory to retail store..we need very efficient tracking device that we can monitor their route and to monitor how long they are driver (km/hr)..each delivery trucks have a constant routing everyday, when someone break they routine we need to know…please help us to find good tracking device that we can monitor each truck on a real-time basis over the internet.

Please reply to my email..

Thanks,

Alex

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32 robin August 3, 2012 at 9:39 am

I have a very jealous husband and I think he may have a device on my ride. how can I find out if this is a fact or am I crazy. lol I know I’m not crazy!

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33 Joe October 16, 2012 at 5:29 am

Hi robin,

You can check the wheel wells or the undercarriage of your car for GPS tracking devices. They often are placed inside a magnetic case that easily attaches to a car but looks out of place when doing a visual inspection. You might to check the clove box or other compartments in the vehicle to see if he has placed the device in there.

It might also be helpful to talk to him about it or to include a mutual friend or counselor in the equation. Severe jealousy can turn violent if it isn’t dealt with appropriately.

- Joe

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34 Lizette September 25, 2012 at 5:11 pm

How do I go about buying this watch for my children ? I have been looking but all I get is information on it

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35 Rose October 10, 2012 at 8:52 am

Is there a way we can keep track of our electronic devices like ipods, cameras, laptops? There are so many things that go missing where I am from due to thieves who are on drugs. These electronic devices are so easy to steal and I want to keep track of my stuff.

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36 EDDIE October 19, 2012 at 5:30 am

What aspect does the tracking device have for consumers? Does it track the stores you have been in and somehow you get mail from those stores from the tracking device.

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37 Joe November 8, 2012 at 5:02 am

Hi Eddie,

What I mean by “consumer grade” or “consumer level” is that they are used by normal people as normal people. This would be compared to “business grade” or business level” devices that would be used by businesses.

They are simply different markets for GPS tracking manufacturers to target. For example, pet tracking devices are consumer grade GPS trackers while fleet tracking devices are business grade.

- Joe

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38 Liz in WA June 15, 2014 at 3:16 pm

What would be the best GPS/Tracking device for a child (age 14) that is flying across country on their own? I want it there just incase of kidnapping, since there is a stop over on the flight. I have set up for help with the airline to watch my child, but I want extra safety measures. Thanks!

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