I'm looking for information regarding the feasibility of hidden GPS tracking for bicycles
December 8, 2011 1:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for information regarding the feasibility of a hidden GPS tracking system for bicycles. The goal is to track/recover stolen bicycles. This product looks promising (if it was actually available), but also looks like it would be easy to spot/remove. Ideally it should be able to be inserted into the frame tubing so it could be installed in various types of bikes. This is for a community wide effort with local law enforcements cooperation. Has anyone heard of this being done before? Either on an individual level, or better yet a community Implementation of some kind. Thanks all.
posted by -t to Technology (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
That link doesn't work for me.
posted by KathrynT at 1:10 PM on December 8, 2011

Googling seems to indicate it's pretty common. Here is an article in The Guardian about various programs in the UK.
posted by XMLicious at 1:12 PM on December 8, 2011

The problem with having something hidden deeply inside the bicycle is that tracking beacons use lots of power. You'd need to find a way to continuously charge the batteries or you'd need to replace them frequently.
posted by alms at 1:19 PM on December 8, 2011

Police did it in Madison, Wisconsin. No idea how it works technically, but it was quite successful.
posted by dr. boludo at 1:34 PM on December 8, 2011

The link you posted http://www.gpstrackthis.com/GPSTrack/ for that British device in the steering column sounds cool. But I would also worry about the batteries. How about mounting something on the wheel hub so it could re-generate power? I don't think bad guys are going to be so smart about combing the bike for black boxes. Especially if it isn't shaped like a black box.
posted by markhu at 1:39 PM on December 8, 2011

Here's a report a couple years later about the decrease in bike thefts.
posted by dr. boludo at 1:39 PM on December 8, 2011

A GPS tracking system involves two components; one, the GPS receiver (all GPS devices are "dumb" devices that simply listen to a signal from the satellites, and convert that signal to coordinate data); and two, a cellular data modem which can send this data to you, the police, or a website.

Both of these components are battery hogs; this is why smartphones have such lousy battery life. They're also expensive, because that data transmission doesn't come free: you have to pay a monthly fee for service, typically $10/month or more. Look at those child-tracker GPS devices for reference.

I'd imagine a more feasible community-level system would involve RFID tags embedded in the bikes, and an RFID scanner mounted in police cars (which is already in place in some locales, for license/registration enforcement). "GPS for everybody" just isn't there yet.
posted by bhayes82 at 1:42 PM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here is an alternate link: http://www.integratedtrackers.com/GPSTrack/Products.jsp

Looks pretty cool, and they have answers for many of the concerns people are posting, however the "Available later this week" makes me think this is vaporware.
posted by Big_B at 1:54 PM on December 8, 2011

In addition to power usage, the GPS receiver (and to a lesser extent the cellphone module) need to have an antenna outside the metal frame of the bike. So there's be at least some visible hardware, unless you can hide it under the seat or something. But only a half-square-inch patch or so really. Anyway, it's certainly technically feasible. There are companies that make package and fleet-tracking products that could track a bike. You could DIY it with something like the Telit GSM+GPRS modules, but it'd probably cost you $300+ to build the device. (At which point, taking an old smartphone apart and cramming it into the bike tube might make more sense.) Alternately you could, for example, only use wifi; the bike would phone home if ridden past an open wifi access point, and upload a list of SSIDs it's seen for location via Skyhook or an equivalent service. Less of a realtime tracking setup, but maybe cheaper to produce.

Or you could just engrave serial numbers into every square inch of the thing
posted by hattifattener at 6:22 PM on December 8, 2011

There are lots of GSM based bugging systems that might fit inconspicuously under a seat. If you're working with law enforcement, they might be able to use E911 information to precisely place where the bug is once it's stolen. If battery life isn't what it could be, talk to a Radio Control hobbyist/shop to see if they can whip up a LiIon cell pack that fits into the seat stem - Note that most of these have a fairly low usage until they're activated - Which you do once it's actually stolen.
posted by Orb2069 at 6:27 AM on December 9, 2011

The programs run by police in Madison, Wisc and in the UK all involved bait bikes. Bait bikes only require that the batteries last a small number of days.

The battery requirements are completely different for a bike that you actually want to use on a regular basis. The batteries won't last that long.
posted by alms at 6:51 AM on December 9, 2011

If you have law enforcement on board, then a bait bike operation should be feasible. (A lot of departments would prefer to fund this using a grant of some kind, though.) The technology really isn't that much of a barrier as the links above show. The basic idea is that the thieves arrested after a few successful baits will be professional/habitual bike thieves and thus you'll cut down on a big chunk of the problem, as well as eventually providing a bit of public deterrent.

I don't know that the tech is quite there, though, for a permanent and universal bike lo-jack. You're dealing with ever-smaller hardware, but also the need for long-term power storage and provision, and on a lot of bikes that's going to be pretty visible -- and a universal program touted to the community is going to be "leaky" such that thieves will eventually find out and know where to find and disable any system. (Car-based systems are often able to be buried deep within the geometry of the engine, and with a lot of variant locations possible, meaning that security through obscurity has some value.)

As a bike advocate in my community, I recommend you concentrate on a bike bait program, if possible, and if not, on education. Not just habitual locking of bikes, but where, how, and using what kind of lock.

There are also things you can teach people about bike recovery, e.g. via craigslist.
posted by dhartung at 1:12 PM on December 9, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the feedback and information. It is very appreciated.
posted by -t at 8:02 AM on December 14, 2011

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