IT Finds its Way with GPS

Thursday Jan 12th 2006 by Drew Robb
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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.

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.

Surveyors in a Strange Land

In the case of Smith's Rapid Response Team, the goal was to cut down the time it took to conduct a Rapid Needs Assessment (RNA) -- a methodology developed by the CDC and the World Health Organization to gather data on health needs during disasters. They also need to get the work done without assistance from CDC headquarters or other external bodies.

As was clearly demonstrated in the days following Hurricane Katrina, disaster responses must first be a local action. Communities can't wait for the federal government to arrive on the scene.

Smith contracted with Bradshaw Consulting Services, Inc. (BCS) of Aiken, S.C., to install and configure appropriate hardware, develop customized data collection forms and train users. This GPS combo consists of HP's iPaq or Dell Axim X50V handhelds running Windows and a laptop. The handhelds also include a GPS card from GlobalSat. The applications and forms utilize several ESRI products, including ArcPad and ArcGIS.

A typical scenario might involve 10 or more teams going out into the field with handhelds, each connected to a laptop field computer at the staging area. The survey teams would be guided by the GPS/GIS to the appropriate locations to conduct the interviews. The surveys automatically include the GPS coordinates for the location, so surveyors don't have to determine the address and fill it in. They then return to the base station to upload the survey information from the laptop.

''We can do the analysis right there in the field if we need to,'' says Smith. ''But if we have a wireless phone card in the laptop, we can access the server at the state capital so our state epidemiologists can analyze the data themselves in real time.''

Joey Wilson, BCS's mobile technologies manager, says GPS really proved itself this fall when the CDC requested help conducting an RNA in Florida following Hurricane Wilma. Within 24 hours of deployment, interviewers were trained and on the ground.

''The interviewers came from North Carolina, but GPS helped them go directly to locations around an unfamiliar city without lost time,'' says Wilson.

As a result they were able to conduct more than 300 interviews in less than three days and digitally transfer the data to the CDC. This cut the time the CDC needed to calculate the needs for 150,000 people in the area from several weeks to a matter of days.

''The CDC had been developing its own in-house questionnaire application, but it didn't include a GPS component,'' Wilson adds. ''Now they are aware of how valuable locational awareness is and how much time it saves interviewers.''

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