DIY Friday: GPS Tracking

GPS systems appear to be the newest must-have gadget. They were flying off the shelves in December:

Personal navigation devices are a hot gift to give this holiday season. Unit sales of GPS systems rose 488% over last year, according to the latest point-of-sale information from market research firm NPD Group.

And GPS providers are not planning to sit on this past year’s successes. list GPS chipsets as one of five "emerging technologies" of 2008:

GPS chipset provider, SiRF Technology Holdings is the company to beat in the personal navigation device space, with over 50% market share. The company is one of several gearing to battle it out for a piece of the next-generation cellular handset market.

Mobile phones are only starting to emerge as a high-growth market for GPS chipsets, which include the basic radio-frequency (RF) and GPS base-band chips. True, most handsets already incorporate the technology, but it goes largely unused because most network operators have been slow to roll out location-based services with broad consumer appeal.

The other reason GPS chipset suppliers have ignored the current generation of mobile handsets is Qualcomm, which has been packaging GPS capability into its mobile phone chips for the last seven years. The industry, however, is shifting from today’s global system for mobile communications and CDMA network standards toward 3G, or W-CDMA standards, and next generation-compatible handsets are forecast to see a compound annual growth rate of 22% over the next five years.

But you don’t need to wait for the market to marry GPS and cell-phone handsets. Turn your cell-phone into a GPS tracking device:

DIY GPS tracking with "disposable" phones – Mod a GPS enabled Nextel and fauxjack yourself…or your car, or your kid, or a big dog, or an elephant. We really, really want to track an elephant. Mologogo is a free service that will track a "friends" GPS enabled cell phone from another phone(gps not required) or on the web. It currently works on pretty much any Nextel phone with Java and GPS – even a $60 no-contract Boost Mobile phone.

Using any GPS-enabled phone with java and a supported provider (Nextel, Sprint, or Boost), you can install a free service called Mologogo and turn your phone into a tracking device.

What can Mologogo do?

From your phone or the web, Mologogo shows you where you and your friends are at any moment. If you are on the go, Mologogo can alert you when friends are close, search around for points of interest, and keep you updated with local traffic and weather. Mologogo even supports mobile chat, so you can reach out to your nearby friends instantly. If you are on your PC, you can see all of your friends – locations, sign up new friends, bookmark locations, and show your Mologogo location on your own web page or blog.

You control who can see your location – anything from the entire Mologogo community to a few select friends. The applications for this are endless: track your kid; use an old phone and a prepaid data plan to track your car or a package; see where friends are in a city; or track mobile employees. (I’m smelling a good marketing opportunity for a quick-delivery pizza chain.)

If you don’t have a Mologogo-capable phone, you can buy one for $80 bucks, maybe less. And, unlike some stand-alone commercial tracking solutions, the service is free (as long as your cell-phone has a data plan).

And the locator works very, very fast, as one MAKE commenter explains:

As for the phones: The reason you get GPS lock so quickly (which might make you think it’s fake) is that the tower gives the phone a breath-of-life packet, containing the current satellite almanac and possibly even the position of the PRN sequences, so the GPS chip can achieve lock almost instantly.

You can test this by taking the phone to an area with no Nextel towers (Montana and Mississippi work well) and telling it to acquire a GPS fix. It’ll take much longer (30-50 seconds typically), just like your Garmin, because it’s not getting help from a tower. But even in the complete absence of towers and service, the phone’s GPS chip does work just fine, and will happily feed NMEA 0183 data over the serial cable for your laptop’s mapping software.