Troops in combat zones, workers in remote areas, hikers and mountain climbers are an emerging market for providers of two-way tracking devices. The technology so far has mostly been used by the Defense Department, but as price points come down it is becoming a more attractive alternative for non-military buyers.
Two-way satellite alerting and messaging systems have been around for a long time. But personal location device providers now see potential new customers as electronics become more miniaturized and the availability of two-way satellite services increases.
Iridium Communications Inc., a satellite communications company, has developed a matchbook-sized transceiver and a half-dollar-sized antenna that can be incorporated into a variety of handheld and man-portable devices. The components enable the tracking systems to communicate with a satellite network. Military special operations forces now use some of those advanced technologies to keep tabs on their units. Industry experts expect to see demand for those personnel trackers increasing throughout the armed forces and expanding to other agencies in the coming years.
“There will be more wide-scale and ubiquitous rollouts of tracking systems through the military and government,” says Patrick Shay, vice president of Iridium Data Services. “Maybe at some point in the future, a service member puts on his helmet and he gets his tracking device.”
For now, though, the trackers are limited in size to items such as radios and PDAs.
The overall personal tracking market could have as many as 1 million terminals in use by 2014, said a study released earlier this year by Telecom, Media and Finance Associates Inc. Two-way devices may account for 25 percent of the $150 million retail service revenues expected in that year.
Traditional non-military tracking systems function more like beacons, which emit a signal at regular intervals with location information and diagnostic data readings. Such one-way communication sensors are useful for remote monitoring of pipelines and other infrastructure. But when they are deployed by federal agencies and companies to track employees working in distant locations, the limited communications can cause problems. For example, the tracker can transmit emergency signals accidentally and trigger a search-and-rescue operation unnecessarily because command centers cannot confirm the alert with the person carrying it.
A growing number of companies are solving that issue by developing trackers that can send and receive text messages.
EMS Technologies Inc.’s latest product is the Osprey, a personal tracking device with two-way satellite communications capability.
This is almost a blue force tracker for individuals, says Steve Edgett, vice president for business development at EMS Global Tracking. The handheld device operates on Inmarsat’s geosynchronous satellite constellation. Through those satellites, customers can send 10-byte messages back and forth to the tracker, which has a menu of pre-selected texts.
“It really opens up markets that traditionally have only been served by using terrestrial technologies,” says Edgett. “This technology would be competitive with a cell phone.”
Comparable products cost thousands of dollars, but the company intends to sell the technology for $1,200 per unit and provide the training, network and resources necessary for customers to monitor their own personnel. That price point will drop further through electronics miniaturization and new satellite communication services being made available, he adds.
“This is going to bring the technology down to a level where it could be more widely disseminated than it ever has been before,” says Edgett. The tracking field is growing at such a rapid clip that an industry alliance formed last year to help the two-way emergency communications and tracking technologies develop in a standardized fashion. Ninety percent of emergency messages beamed from personal tracking devices are false alarms. “It was creating a deluge of activity for the precious resources involved in search and rescue,” says Shay, who chairs the so-called ProTECTS Alliance. He says that 57 businesses have joined the organization in hopes of solving the problem.
Companies and governments increasingly are focusing on using satellite signals to provide personal communications and information well beyond location data, says William Ostrove, space systems analyst at Forecast International.
“They’re going to be sending and receiving so much more information through the satellites that it is going to force the satellite companies to upgrade their systems so that they can handle the increased demand,” he says.
The three largest direct-to-consumer satellite service providers — Globalstar, Iridium and Orbcomm — are all in the process of upgrading their fleets for increased capacity for the two-way communications traffic. Iridium, which owns the largest fleet of low-earth orbit constellation satellites, recently awarded a contract to Thales to replace its 66 satellites with 81 next-generation systems. The current network was designed to support more than 1 million voice subscribers. In July, its tally of subscribers was 359,000, and many of them were data subscribers, company officials said. The new satellites will not only add capacity to the system but it will also boost data rates, says Shay.