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GPS Services Assist People in Their Daily Lives (February 6, 2004)

The location of a person carrying this small device is displayed on a computer screen. (Jiji)
The satellite-based Global Positioning System is starting to play a greater role in the lives of ordinary citizens. Growing numbers of car owners are choosing vehicles equipped with GPS-based navigation systems, and security companies and others are now marketing tracking systems that use GPS to pinpoint the locations of people or objects. These systems make use of portable terminals that enable GPS to determine, within a margin of only a few meters, the location of the device. When a tracking device provided by a security firm is carried by a child or an elderly relative, for example, the system enables users to monitor the carrier's whereabouts and, thus, their safety. Such devices are also being used in combination with the Internet to help people track down the nearest taxi or to find out whether a bus is running on schedule.

Monitoring Children's Safety
The security industry has taken the lead in seeking out uses for GPS that appeal to individuals. Security firms are now vying with one another to provide tracking services utilizing dedicated terminals that work in concert with mobile phones. The exact location of the person carrying the terminal can be determined instantly and displayed on a map on an ordinary home computer screen.

To get an idea of what it would be like to use this new technology, consider the service introduced in 2001 by Secom Co. Suppose you want to send your five-year-old daughter out to run an errand for you. First you make sure she is wearing her backpack, into which you have inserted a tiny dedicated terminal. Once she is out of the door, you go online and connect to a subscribers-only website, click on the "show location" button, and are instantly shown an approximate address indicating your daughter's present location. You click on another button to display a map, and there you see a red icon indicating her exact location: She has crossed the street safely.

You can adjust the on-screen map to get a magnified view of the area around her, focusing in on a 50-meter radius. Under ideal conditions, the margin of error is only a few meters, although if the subject goes inside a building this increases to about 10 to 30 meters. Subjects sometimes cannot be located because the tracking signal cannot reach certain places, especially below ground level, but if you call the company, you will usually get an address and detailed information: "It looks as though she's walking on the sidewalk near the elementary school." In an emergency, the firm can dispatch someone to the scene immediately.

Secom charges ¥5,000 ($47.62 at ¥105 to the dollar) to register for the service, plus an ¥800 ($7.62) basic monthly fee; the charge for dispatching an employee is ¥10,000 ($95.24). Other security companies, as well as telecommunications firms, are offering similar services at comparable rates. These firms report that more and more people are seeking their services in order to ensure the safety their children or elderly relatives. Secom, which now has 170,000 subscribers, may soon extend its service to enable the tracking of cars, motorcycles, and pets. The combination of GPS and Internet technology is also expected to lead to the development of sophisticated antitheft devices in the near future.

Will the Bus Be on Time?
GPS is also being utilized by systems that determine the locations of public buses and make this information available via computers or mobile phones. A dedicated terminal is installed on each bus near the driver's seat, and it interacts with the GPS to pinpoint the bus's location, enabling passengers to check in advance whether the bus is running on schedule or is stuck in traffic. This system is currently in use on over 3,500 bus lines throughout Japan. Keio Bus, a transit company that has introduced the system on 14 bus routes in Tokyo and provides a website offering real-time information with maps of bus runs and locations, reports that the system has helped to keep buses from "bunching up" in heavy traffic.

Taxis are being equipped with GPS devices, too. Enoshima Taxi Inc., a taxi firm based in Kanagawa Prefecture, has installed dedicated terminals in 50 of its vehicles. When the company receives a call from a registered customer, the customer's name and destination are automatically relayed to the nearest taxi.

Other applications of GPS include commercial aircraft and passenger ship navigation, land surveying, and research on environmental changes, but for now GPS is mostly being used for practical, everyday applications. The most prominent example is the use of GPS in car navigation systems, which debuted in the 1990s and have now reached a very high level of accuracy and sophistication. As suggested by the emergence of the GPS-based products and services described above, GPS is beginning to be regarded as one of the indispensable technologies of the early twenty-first century.

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Related Web Sites
Secom Co.
Keio Bus (site is Japanese only)
Enoshima Taxi Inc. (site is Japanese only)

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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