IT Finds its Way with GPS

IT managers increasingly are using Global Positioning Systems to track mobile workers, avoid costly accidents and locate products. Users say it's saving them time and money.
Posted January 12, 2006
By

Drew Robb

Drew Robb


(Page 1 of 2)

Businesspeople always insist that time is money. Physicists, on the other hand, assert that the real relationship lies between time and space. But, as it turns out, they both are right.

As organizations find new ways to use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to cut distances traveled, they wind up saving both time and money. In fact, they may even wind up saving lives.

''When you are dealing with a potential bioterrorism event, minutes can make a difference in terms of whether you can save peoples' lives,'' says Mark Smith, Ph.D., epidemiologist for the Guilford County, N.C. Health Department.

Smith was the project coordinator for Rapid Response Project 516, funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. The project developed field survey techniques to quickly track down disease sources. These techniques incorporate GPS-enabled handhelds and laptops, together with Geographic Information System (GIS) applications and data.

Fortunately, it hasn't been needed yet to counter a bioterrorism attack. But it was utilized in 2004 during an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease at a manufacturing plant. Smith's mobile GIS team conducted surveys in the area to help out another team that used a paper-based system. As the results came in, scientists uploaded electronic survey data directly into a database.

''The CDC epidemiologists pulled up the data immediately and followed up on cases in real-time as the data came in,'' says Smith. ''We heard three weeks later that the paper survey was still sitting on someone's desk.''

From NAVSTAR to OnStar

While currently best known as a driving and fishing aid, GPS was originally a military navigation system called the NAVSTAR GPS. The President Ronald Reagan ordered it be made available for commercial use after Soviet fighters shot down Korean Air Flight 007 (a Boeing 747 carrying 269 passengers and crew) when it strayed into Russian air space.

GPS consists of three elements -- a fleet of satellites (at least 24 at a time), ground-based control centers and user receivers.

The satellites orbit the earth twice a day at an elevation of 11,000 miles, emitting a continuous signal containing the satellite's time and position. The user devices then analyze the signals from three or more satellites to determine the device's precise location. Early systems provided accuracy to within about 70 feet. Further enhancements can bring that number down to within one centimeter, even while the receiver is moving.

In addition to the U.S. system, the Russian military has its own version, called GLONASS, and the European Union plans to have a 30-satellite Galileo Positioning System operational by 2008.

The science behind GPS systems is impressive but, as with other types of technology, the real value lies in the applications -- and they are getting more sophisticated all the time. The Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, for example, is using GPS sensors to detect the movement of a dam in a seismically active area. The Alaska Railroad Corporation has incorporated GPS into its train collision avoidance system. Utilities use GPS-enabled devices from St.Paul, Minn.-based 3M Corp. to locate and map underground cables, wires and pipes. Biologists use the devices to track migratory animals. John Deere and Company of Moline, Ill. uses GPS guidance systems in self-steering tractors.

Then, of course, there are the ubiquitous automobile onboard navigation systems, such as GM's OnStar.

Space Equals Time Equals Money

While, perhaps not as exotic as those uses listed above, some of the more sophisticated GPS deployments are designed to maximize the productivity of mobile workers.

According to a October 2005 report from IDC, a major industry research firm based in Framingham, Mass., there were 650 million mobile workers worldwide in 2004. By 2009, that figure will rise to more than 850 million -- greater than one-quarter of the total workforce. It costs businesses money every minute those workers are moving rather than working. And GPS is the tool of preference when it comes to minimizing such 'work breaks'.

Sears Holdings Corp. of Hoffman Estates, Ill., for example, recently implemented a new system to optimize routes for its 11,000 field service technicians. Called the Sears Smart Toolbox, Sears and Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (ESRI) of Redlands, Calif, co-developed the applications. Each service vehicle contains a GPS, satellite and cellular communications system, as well as a wireless LAN access point. It also contains a ruggedized laptop from Itronix, a part of General Dynamics Corp. of Falls Church, Va.

The system downloads the technician's daily work schedule to the laptop. Once the vehicle is in motion, the laptop switches to navigation mode, giving the driver verbal turn-by-turn directions to the next job site.

''Technicians don't have to look at maps, don't have to call the customers for directions and don't get lost,'' says Dave Lewis, ESRI's project manager for the Sears installation. ''When you are talking about 11,000 technicians, even if you save them 10 minutes a day, it is a huge ROI.''

The system also reports in to the backend server when the technician arrives at the work site. The tech then takes the laptop into the building where he is working as it contains service documentation. And if additional information is needed or the worker needs to order parts, the laptop connects via wireless LAN to other equipment in the truck, which uses a satellite or cellular connection to download the required data from the servers at headquarters.

The system also tracks each technician's progress throughout the day and can adjust schedules and routes as needed when jobs take longer than expected.

Go to the next page to find out how GPS helped save lives after a major hurricane.


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