The Low Down on GPS Trackers

April 27, 2016 by Alex Udanis

Once exclusive to Spy Movies, compact GPS trackers are becoming a reality. What are engineers making with these smaller systems?

Once exclusive to Spy Movies, compact GPS trackers are becoming a reality. What are engineers making with these smaller systems?

A quick Amazon or Ebay search yields hundreds of results. So how do these GPS trackers work and why are they becoming more mainstream?


Basic overview of GPS tracker signals 


Types: SD vs Cellular

GPS trackers can be broken down into two separate groups. The first type of GPS records location to internal memory. For example, below is a GPS tracker that saves the time and GPS location to an SD card.


Columbus V-900 GPS Logger - Image courtesy of Engadget  


These GPS trackers are often more compact than other types of GPS trackers, but the size reduction comes at the cost of an inability to view current data. To view the historical GPS data, the device needs to be removed from service and the contents of the SD card viewed. These devices are often also referred to as GPS Loggers. Below is a basic overview of how these systems can work.


Basic GPS logger overview 


The second type of GPS trackers relies on a cellular data connection. These GPS trackers operate very similar to SD card based trackers, but the Cellular modem replaces an SD card. These trackers transmit information at set increments or on-demand to a cloud service.


Cellular GPS tracker overview 


These GPS trackers often require an annual or monthly subscription for the use of the cellular data connection. The data from the cloud services is then available from a website or sometimes even an app.


Amcrest's GPS Tracker App 


Form Factors 

GPS trackers now come in many different form factors and contain different features depending on the tracker's intended application.


Portable GPS trackers are small, self-contained GPS trackers. These GPS trackers come in various sizes and often have unique features. For example, below is a Vectu Portable Tracker.


Portable Vehicle Tracker that is self-contained  


This portable tracker contains a cellular modem, GPS receiver, large battery, accelerometer, and a button to send a help alert. This type of tracker is designed for use inside of a car, bag, or other environmentally protected location.


Hardwired GPS trackers are common in fleet vehicles and as a method to locate missing vehicles. Hardwired trackers need to be attached to a power source and often will be mounted in a hidden location to prevent tampering.


Vectu Pro hardwired GPS tracker  


Hardwired GPS trackers often require being wired to a power source such as the fuse box of a car, a GPS antenna, and an antenna for the cellular connection.


External GPS are similar to what is typically shown in the movies. These GPS trackers are often sealed from the environment and have magnets to attach them to vehicles.


A SpyTec GPS tracker case with magnets. Image used courtesy of Spytec GPS


These trackers are designed to be discreetly placed onto a vehicle. The legality of the use of these trackers varies based on the exact usage scenario.



Let's take a look at an actual GPS tracker. The Vectu portable tracker is a compact GPS tracker a little larger than a deck of playing cards. Inside of this device, there is a large battery, a GPS receiver, accelerometer, and a 2G cellular modem.


The Vectu GPS tracker is compact 


The device can be powered and charged via a standard Micro. The internal 3000mAh 3.7v single cell Li-Ion battery pack that can provide a 100 hour standby time. There is a small power switch located on the side of the device that allows it to be powered on.


The Small Power Switch 


Located on the top of the GPS tracker is a button with status LEDs behind it. Pressing this button sends a help alert to any contacts set up in the application


Pressing the button sends an alert! 


All of the information about the GPS tracker is viewable through the web interface or through the Aspenta app that is available for both iOS and Android devices.


The myAspenta App 


The Ventu GPS tracker comes with one year of service included with the purchase price. Additional years of service cost $36. A big thank you to Aspenta for sending us a tracker for us to take a look at!



Bluetooth Trackers! 


In addition to GPS trackers, there are more options available now. For example, a growing market is Bluetooth location trackers. These small devices use low energy Bluetooth to send out information to a phone application. They are often used for more localized tracking, like inside a house or room.


Tile Bluetooth tracker 


Tile, one of the leading manufacturers of Bluetooth trackers, are looking to track beyond the 100’ range. The Tile smartphone app runs in the background and looks for other Tiles. The location of any Tiles found is then sent to Tile’s web server and reported back to appropriate owner.


How Tile Trackers Work 


With technology becoming smaller, trackers will continue to get smaller as well. Trackers that were once considered cutting edge would now be considered large and clunky. With the user base of Bluetooth trackers becoming larger and larger, trackers like Tile may become more common than traditional GPS devices.

These smaller GPS trackers and the components used to make them should lead to some interesting designs. It could lead to uses for GPS tracking that we haven't thought of yet, although there are already plenty of people using GPS in strange ways. If you'd like to delve into GPS development, there are a few projects on All About Circuits that involve GPS modules. GPS is also becoming more popular in development kits, which could be something to keep in mind next time you're looking to buy one. If you have made any interesting projects with GPS modules, share them in the comments!