Location-tracking services: Hits to accompany the misses

Article By : Brian Dipert

GPS in combination with wireless connectivity create capabilities that, although often maligned nowadays, can also deliver compelling benefits.

Location-tracking services, whether built into a mobile device operating system (Apple iOS, Google Android) and/or delivered via dedicated software (Life360, Find My Droid) or hardware (Apple AirTag, Samsung SmartTag, Tile), have gotten a bad rap of late, at least somewhat well-deserved. Stories of AirTags (this isn’t an Apple-only issue, to be clear) unknowingly (to the recipient) being slipped into womens’ coat pockets, childrens’ backpacks, out-of-the-way places in vehicles, etc., and then used to surreptitiously track them from afar, abound in the news media right now. You can even buy an AirTag online that’s had its built-in speaker disabled, further decreasing the likelihood that the intended tracking target will be aware of its presence.

I strongly suspect these situations are far less common than you’d otherwise believe from the frenetic “if it bleeds it leads” coverage I’m seeing right now, but regardless it is an important issue, even if it only happens once. And the increased public awareness seems to have had at least one positive near-term effect: Life360—who (as I mentioned in a recent teardown of the Apple AirTag)—bought Tile last November just announced that it’s significantly scaling back both the precision of the location data it shares with partners and the number of its partners. To wit, I thought I’d devote this post to passing along two location-tracking experiences that were quite positive and, I think, showcase such services’ benefits when implemented robustly and used responsively and responsibly.

The tablet that took a trip to Alabama

In late September 2019, I flew back to Denver, CO from Silicon Valley, CA (ending one of the last business trips I was able to take before COVID-19 shut everything down the following spring). During the flight, I’d been watching a movie on my first-generation space grey 9.7” iPad Pro:

On final descent I (only temporarily, I’d intended) slipped it into the seat-back pocket in front of me. The next morning, when I went to pull the iPad Pro out of my attaché case…you guessed it…it wasn’t there. Good news #1: I’d already associated its “Find My” facilities with my Apple account; and good news #2: its wireless connectivity support included not only Wi-Fi (which would only work if the iPad was logged onto a relevant network at the time) but also AT&T cellular (which works whenever there’s an active network with adequate signal strength).

I logged onto my Apple account and voila: there was my iPad Pro, still sitting at the airport. I could tell from the latitude-and-longitude particulars that it was in the vicinity of one of the TSA security checkpoints (a reasonable destination if another passenger had retrieved it from the back-seat pocket after I departed), assuming it was on a particular level of the airport. Unfortunately, though, as with any GPS-based technology, the elevation details were imprecise at best, so I couldn’t discern which actual airport level my tablet was currently inhabiting.

I immediately put the iPad Pro in “Lost Mode,” which automatically suspended any credit cards associated with my Apple Pay account and enabled me to display a message with my contact info on the home screen any time someone turned it on. Obviously, this (and tracking more generally) would only continue to work until the battery was drained, so I didn’t go overboard, but in conjunction with phone calls I subsequently made to the airport lost and found and (per airport recommendation) Southwest Airlines’ baggage services department, I also remotely activated the “Play Sound” feature so that personnel might locate it (they couldn’t).

And then…the iPad Pro went offline. And I was…sad. At minimum, I figured the battery might have drained. I’d also filed “lost item” reports online at both the airport and Southwest Airlines websites with detailed descriptions of the tablet and its case, so someone who came across it could still ID it (if necessary recharging it in order to see my “Starry Night” lock screen) . But my worst geek fear was that someone equally geeky had found it, put it in DFU mode, wiped it, and…bye bye, iPad Pro.

And then, a couple of days later…I got a “Find My” email indicating that it was network-connected again! In…Scottsboro, Alabama? Turns out that’s where Southwest Airlines’ primary lost-and-found facility is located. Shortly thereafter, I got an email from Southwest, responding to my earlier filing and indicating that they’d found it. I paid $31.73 for Federal Express return shipping, and shortly thereafter I watched it (both on iCloud and via periodic Find My emails) making its steady way back to me: Huntington, AL airport…Memphis, TN airport (Fedex’s nexus)…Denver, CO airport…and finally to a Fedex warehouse, a delivery truck, and my front doorstep. Three days’ return, eight days’ total away from me, and its battery was still near full.

A snowblower mishap

This story’s more “raw” because it happened more recently…twitch…twitch. The other day (as I write these words) I went for a stroll to the mailbox cluster down the street. It’s only a short distant away, my residence is in a rural environment, and I’d left the dogs behind (and inside), so I didn’t bother locking the front door while I was gone. But I still needed my cluster of keys, including the wireless remote fob for my Volvo XC70, so that I could unlock the mailbox.

Mail retrieved, I put my keys back in my coat pocket. On the way back, walking down the driveway, I slipped on the ice and ended up flat on my back. Nothing was bruised or broken (aside from my ego), and I didn’t even drop my mail, so I figured all was well. I opened the unlocked front door, went inside, locked it behind me, and went on with my day.

That night, we got around 5” of fresh snow accumulation. Since I’d not cleared the driveway after the previous modest snowfall (therefore the ice), I decided to fire up the snowblower the next morning. In retrospect, I vaguely recall hearing a “crunch” partway through the clearing session, although such sounds weren’t uncommon; the snowblower often picks up ice, landscaping bark, etc. (I won’t tell you how many shear bolts I replace on average each year).

Later that day, I ventured outside again to retrieve the mail…but I couldn’t find my keys. The key cluster also included a Tile Mate:

So I frustratingly spent the next few minutes wandering all over the house, fruitlessly activating it and listening for the locating-tune response. Then I thought of the previous day’s slip…and cringed. I went outside, hit “locate” in the app…and faintly discerned the little ditty coming from the snowbank on the other side of the driveway. Briefly pausing to grab a trowel from the garage, I leveraged both my ears and the proximity feedback from the Tile app to triangulate and pinpoint the Tile Mate’s likely location, then started digging.

I found the Tile Mate in short order, still intact and fully functional and still attached to the other also-intact metal keys. The Volvo key fob, unfortunately, was a different matter:

Its metal portion was still attached to the rest of the key cluster, but the plastic case (not to mention the PCB inside it) were nowhere to be found. I’ll save the rest of this grim tale for a topic-focused write-up to come shortly; suffice it to say that thankfully I had a spare Volvo fob, and tomorrow I’m headed the dealer to get another made.

What have your experiences been with location-tracking hardware, software and services? Let me know in the comments!

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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