Remote GPS Tracking
The i.AM GPS tracking system is an Open Source hardware/software combination to remotely track vehicles or other objects.
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The project presented here has come a long way already before becoming a kickstarter project. We developed the tracker for a pilot project at a company that was specifically looking for simplicity (both hardware and software wise), ease of use and cost while also being able to be manufactured in non-optimal conditions: even soldered and assembled by hand with minimal training or older equipment. These goals were met within the pilot project; prototypes were produced on a small scale and the project was an overall success.
So, why this Kickstarter project? After the pilot project, we retained the rights to the design and the software with the intend to commercialize the tracker on a larger scale, with a roadmap leading to more advanced trackers. While we could keep the project closed and proprietary, Kickstarter gives us the opportunity to try a different approach which, if it succeeds, will see the entire project (hardware, firmware and software) open sourced for everyone to enjoy. At the same time, it will make it easier for us to make the necessary capital investment to develop the product further and start producing the trackers on a larger scale.
Some of the hardware features:
- Long battery life. In passive mode (not tracking but connected to network) it can operate for two weeks continuously. It can also easily support a power down mode in which it will listen to external events (e.g., motion) and can run for months at a time (most likely even a year)
- Quad band GSM connectivity, meaning compatibility with all GSM networks.
- Expansion port to connect extension hardware. The unused pins of the micro controller (including two external interrupt pins) are available to easily add functionality such as a panic button, motion sensor, etc.
Now, there are plenty of other trackers out there, so what makes this one special? Besides the aforementioned simplicity of the hardware, which consists of one of the smallest Atmel microcontrollers (ATTiny2313, ATTiny4313 in production version) and all in one GSM/GPS module (SIM548C/SIM908C) we see that most trackers today fall in two categories:
- The first one uses hardware which is sold at a loss with a monthly contract to access the tracking data
- The second one sends tracking information to a cell phone using SMS where the user can see the coordinates and open a link in Google Maps
Both have some serious disadvantages. The first one has a monthly cost attached even if you're not using the tracker. You could deactivate the subscription for a certain amount of time, but usually there is a reactivation fee when you want to use your tracker again. Furthermore, all the tracking data sits on a third party server. If there is a security breach or if the provider goes out of business your data could very well be compromised or lost.
The second one has a problem of usability. What if you want to track 3 or 4 or a lot more vehicles? How do you efficiently manage this data? Sending text messages to the tracker is prone to errors and can be very tedious. Getting the data back and clicking on a link to get you to a Google map might work for one tracking point, but what if you are tracking a vehicle over time and need to see a history?
The advantage of the second one however is that it uses SMS for the communication of tracking data from or commands to the tracker. Why SMS is a good idea over other technologies such as GPRS, EDGE or 3G/4G?
- Coverage: works even with connections that are not good enough for voice, and is available where other network services are not
- The network itself acts as a buffer in case one of the communicating ends has no connection
- The amount of power needed to send an SMS is much less than to e.g., set up a TCP connection over GPRS
- Point to Point communication without the need for a server with static IP address
These, and other, criteria make that SMS is a very good method. We just have to simplify the manual process with a software system:
The application pictured above handles all the data coming from the tracker, manages settings, has a central map on which to see your data and allows for easy asset management. The application is cross platform and runs already on Windows (XP/7/8), MacOSX, Linux and FreeBSD. It is written in Qt, which allows this ease of porting. To send commands to the tracker and receive the data, a simple GSM modem is used by the application.
The map pictured above is using data from the OpenStreetMap project. While you could use Google Maps (and we do have that feature), OpenStreetMaps is fully open - just like we want this project to be. You can even run your own OpenStreetMap server and provide your own mapping overlays or data for specific projects.
We also have Google StreetView capability, allowing you to see where your asset is if StreetView is available in the area. This allows you to easily identify the area of interest in case of a stolen vehicle for instance. You can see this feature in action in the video below.
Additionally, these are some of the features of the software:
- Easily add assets and asset categories for a clear overview of your data
- Configure the remote tracker's password and reporting phone number
- Create and manage geofences and get per asset alert messages when outside geofence
- Switch tracker update intervals (timely updates), request update at any time, or put the tracker in 'tracking' mode whereby updates are sent based on change in speed and heading
- View logs of the asset with all the information regarding battery, tracking history, etc.
- Export tracking data as GPX to easily use in other applications such as Google Earth
- Configure the use of either the GSM modem or Clickatell to send commands to the tracker. This means that even if you can only receive SMS with your modem (e.g., low prepaid credit), you can still send commands to your tracker cheaply with Clickatell.
- Support for both Metric and Imperial units
Due to the portability of the Qt application, it already runs on the Raspberry Pi and forms a nice integrated tracking station. Just connect to a screen and you're set to go. In fact, one of the funding incentives includes a fully configured, ready to go R-Pi based tracking system.
We're already in contact with the manager of this project, Mr. Wayne Truchsess, to further develop both our platforms towards the next generation together.
We'd like to show some use cases and an overview of how the hardware and software integrates. We illustrate the basic principle in the image below.
The asset to track is equipped with our tracker. The one pictured above is the prototype PCB; the production version is smaller, measuring 40mm by 55mm (1.57 by 2.17 inch). Just like the prototype version, it has a USB port to charge the battery. We plan to support OBD-II through a simple add-on giving the opportunity to easily hide the tracker in a car.
However, vehicles are not the only thing you might want to track, and it can be used to track e.g. dogs (in case they run away for instance), people (hikers, etc.) and more. For these applications we want a very small footprint. The tracker supports both internal and external antennae for this purpose. For a car application, you want an antenna that is external with long leads to give you maximum placement flexibility, to track a games console, you want a box that is a small as possible. Both are supported.
At this time, we have not yet designed a specific case for the device. Due to the simplicity of the case needed we can do this very quickly. There is very little to customize on the design, so we can use the smallest existing box that will fit the tracker and add the required holes for the connectors as a simple customization from one of the many manufacturers. We have done this for the initial pilot project, so we do not expect any issues here.
Once the tracker is in place, you can use our software on any of the supported platforms to track your assets. As mentioned in the video, we support all major operating systems such as Windows, MacOS, Linux, FreeBSD and a special Android version. iOS applications will follow later. The software (both the iAM application and the tracker firmware) will be released as Open Source once the project is funded (literally, the week after) under a dual GPL/BSD license to give you maximum freedom.
Your investment will be used to complete the development phase, establish production within the UK and roll out the finalised hardware and software to the open source community. Some of the goals we have for the production version is to decrease size and higher integration, and perform some optimisations on the design.
Since we have around 100 prototypes ready today, the first 100 people pledging funds to this project in the appropriate funding level will have a tracker sent to them as soon as funding is complete. If there are more than 100, we can easily manufacture another batch. This means you do not have to wait for the production run to start using the tracker. Also, please note that all trackers at every funding level include the needed GSM and GPS antennae.
Lastly: the funding you pledge will help us employ a new person at the company, initially responsible for the Android and iOS applications for this project. Should we manage to get more funding than we ask for, we will be able to advance much faster on new generations of the tracker and software and find more people to speed up this process.
Meet the Core Team
Johan is a published researcher and involved in many projects around the world in the fields of cryptography, robotics, embedded systems, software engineering and development, systems and security, machine vision and learning, software team management and many others. He has been a lecturer at the Vaasa University and Vaasa University of Applied Sciences in Finland and has given guest lectures at leading Universities all over the world. He has also headed a software division as Director of Software for a company active in the development of ARM-processor based computing platforms in the United States. In this function, he also participated in a DARPA funded Raytheon project for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Andy has more than ten years of experience in sales, marketing and business development, having worked on projects for companies around the world. He has published hundreds of articles on marketing and regularly contributes to a number of marketing and business journals.
With over 30 years experience developing advanced processors, processor based systems, and embedded systems and software, Dave is an expert in bringing new products and technologies to market on time. He spent over 25 years with Motorola where he held numerous executive positions in product development and business management and successfully brought multiple generations of M68000, M88000, and PowerPC family processors and SoCs to market. While at Motorola, Dave was the lead executive responsible for creating and managing the PowerPC initiative with Apple, IBM, and Motorola. Dave has been granted 24 patents in the fields of MPU design and systems, and most recently has guided several innovative companies to develop new strategies and technologies and successfully bring them to market.
Maria is an all-round International Business expert. She has represented major companies in international affairs, especially focusing on the Finnish – Russian market segment. She has worked as a professional translator during critical business discussions and has mentored the international cooperation between various universities worldwide. Within this context, she has also been invited to major universities and companies to give guest lectures focusing on cultural differences and challenges when doing business in Russia.
Risks and challenges
As always, there are some risks and challenges involved in a project like this, but we can mitigate most of them.
- Since this is based on an existing hardware platform with an existing software application, there is no development that needs to be done from scratch. The software will be Open Sourced as soon as the project is funded. The schematics will be released as well. The first batch of 100 trackers will go out of the door the week after we are funded.
- The experience of the team makes that none of the aspects of the project such as developing and commercializing hardware, writing and releasing software, managing projects and funds are new. Everyone on the team has a proven track record.
Nevertheless, some other potential problems can arise:
- Component supply. If there are some components and modules with a larger than expected lead time, we might go over our estimated schedule. This is something we have experience with in the past, and we're trying to mitigate these situations to the best of our abilities, but it can be completely out of our hands.
- Even though the PCB changes between the production version and prototype version are minimal, there can be problems with it. The way we will mitigate this risk is by getting a production version board build as soon as possible to verify the changes before producing larger quantity. Should there be unexpected issues, then this could lead to another round of testing and a secondary test version which could lead to unforeseen delays. We believe however that our review process mitigates this risk.
- Production. A lot of delays on projects like this one is producing in quantity. Building 200 units is not the same as building 2500. The logistics, set up times, and manufacturer choice are just a few of the variables here. For example, getting a batch of 100 units at a prototype facility may be all well and good, but if you suddenly need 1000 each month, this facility most likely will not be able to cover this. We have a range of suppliers and manufacturers lined up to make sure that we can produce any quantity we need. We don't rely on a single source for components, PCB's, etc. This alone means we can be as flexible as possible and not introduce delays due to lead times or congestion at one specific manufacturer.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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