17-11-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

Trackable devices are becoming increasingly popular while simultaneously becoming cheaper to develop. What tracking technologies exist, what benefits do they provide, and what challenges do they face?

What tracking technologies exist?

Tracking technologies, as the name suggests, are technologies that enable remote tracking of a physical object. Some tracking technologies are purely software that utilises barcodes scanned at various depots, while hardware tracking technologies may include an electronic device that emits a signal.

The ability to track objects is a science that has existed for the better part of a century, with the first tracking systems using radio transmitters and receivers. Simply put, a device would emit a radio pulse of specific power and frequency which would then be received by a radio receiver. The radio receiver would be directional in designing, meaning that it mostly picks up radio waves when directly looking at the source. From there, the tracked object's position could be estimated but would most likely be used to hunt down the object.

Today, most modern tracking systems take advantage of radio waves as they are easy to produce, detect, and convey information. However, one important aspect of tracking technology is that the tracker can send a signal that allows it to be found. As such, GPS is not a tracking technology as a GPS receiver would tell a device where it is, but another technology would be needed to share this information. Thus, most tracking technologies will pair themselves with another technology like GPS to help the finder locate the tracker.

Cellular networks are one of the most common methods for tracker communication, as cellular networks typically have widespread coverage. Cellular networks are also ideal as trackers do not need to send large amounts of data; a text message once a minute with a GPS location is more than ideal for most tracking methods.

Wi-Fi is another tracking technology that can be used for items inside a building or household. Unlike text messages, Wi-Fi can stream data in real-time, providing more sensory information, including video, audio, temperature, humidity, and pressure. However, the use of Wi-Fi means that it cannot be used outside of private networks.

Bluetooth is another tracking technology that can be ideal for tracking objects nearby. Unlike Wi-Fi, Bluetooth uses less energy, meaning that such a tracker can last longer. However, the reduced energy usage means that its range is severely limited, but this can be beneficial when pinpointing an object within a 20-meter radius.

What benefits do trackers provide?

Tracking technologies have a wide range of applications that include tracking shipments of goods and ensuring that goods in transit meet strict environmental criteria such as temperature, humidity, and shock. For example, vaccines in transit must be kept at specific temperatures. Otherwise, they may denature and become less effective. Trackers in packs of vaccines can monitor the environmental conditions to ensure that their efficacy.

The falling price of trackers combined with police inaction against theft sees many turning to trackers as a form of security. A small tracker can easily be inserted into the handle of an electric scooter or mounted in the most awkward part of a car engine block. Should the object be stolen, the owner can easily find the location of their item and call the police to make the needed arrests. Some are taking this even further by taking the law into their own hands by finding perpetrators and either taking their items back and shaming the thieves on social media.

What challenges do trackers present?

Of all the challenges presented by trackers, privacy is by far the largest. A device that has a tracking device allows the owner to track where their valuable is and whoever has access to that valuable. As such, a criminal could place a tracking device upon a person, monitor where they go, and then build up personal information on the individual. This could include who they see, sending threats to the person, or potentially stealing their identity.

However, tracking devices may also be accessible to the original manufacturer (as they produced the software and hardware) and could be used to track customers. While this may seem farfetched, it has happened continually throughout the past two decades, with large companies gathering digital data on their users. As it is very common for users to scroll through terms and conditions without reading them, many users are still being tracked today.

A prime example is Google who frequently tracks Android users through their GPS and whatever journeys they take (Android phones often ask users what they thought of a restaurant or shop they visited). The same applies to Android Auto and Google maps; user data is collected to determine traffic levels and wait times. While this can be beneficial to other drivers, the truth is that Google can see where each user is, build up a location history, and save this information.

Overall, tracking technologies are a double-edged sword that must be wielded carefully. They can help fight against crime and poor delivery services but simultaneously be used against us and invade our privacy.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.