Google Latitude has already made headlines for allowing phone users to locate their friends, and there are countless other iPhone and Android phone apps already designed to transmit your location - but could pets be the next big thing in GPS tracking?
In the past, losing a pet used to be a case of placing desperate flyers around the local neighborhood, including a healthy reward and hoping that poor Fido hadn't wandered onto the wrong side of the tracks...for good.
But a growing number of device manufacturers are marketing GPS technology as a futuristic tool for tracking your cat or dog, and even discovering exactly where they've been. These devices are sold under a number of names and brands, including Sportdog, LoCATor, RoamEO, Petcell, Zoombak and Pettrack.
There are roughly 3 different types of pet GPS devices in operation and planned development:
1) Microchip RFID tag (rumored)
One firm, Digital Angel, which manufactures and distributes RFID microchips for pets, is currently exploring new techniques of inserting tiny grain sized GPS transmitters in animals (that would look and act like a conventional pet microchip by default).
The stumbling block so far, has been the battery life needed to power the transmitter. New battery technology that can provide up to 7 years of continuous use is now being investigated as a way of solving the issue.
Privacy advocates and conspiracy theorists will probably cite such developments as troubling, conceding that it's only a matter of time before the chips are inserted into certain members of the public.
Disadvantages: Likely to be a high cost solution, including Vet insertion fees. Still a few years away from market.
2) Mobile receiver using phone towers to relay signal (common)
Tracking your pets with SMS is one of the more common technologies avaliable to market. SMS codes with GPS cordinates are sent to the pet owners phones. Some of the better products even synch up with Google maps, thanks to advances in mapping software. The bulk of GPS collars use this technology to find lost pets.
Disadvantages: Mobile range may be limited in certain areas (particularly rural), data costs need to be considered and the cost of these collars is often the most expensive out of all options (many hundreds or thousands of dollars).
3) Radio signals (common)
Some of the cheaper devices specifically use radio signals to interface with a transmitter over a localized, central area.
Disadvantages: These kind of devices often have limited range (2km or less) and do not provide the vast, graphical mapping facilities of online and custom mapping services.
Radio tracking for pets looks more like a scene out of James Cameron's Aliens. If you enjoy that furturistic vibe, radio transmitters are avaliable under $300 on some websites.
Popular GPS devices and brands
There are only a couple of GPS providers we could find offering the technology to pet owners from Australian web addresses., though it would also be possible to order international brands that will work here using quad band/radio technology. These devices include:
What is it? Portable handheld receiver. Radio frequency location device for tracking pets. Looks like something used in the film Aliens. Cool sci-fi vibe. No Google maps function.
What is it? Portable GPS unit. Cheap, but not particularly innovative - uses SMS codes to alert you of pet location via map coordinates.
SportDog SportHunter SD-800
What is it? Designed for training dogs, it can also provide a good radio frequency for finding dogs that have wandered away from the immediate area. Only has a limited range of 700m - but is one of the cheaper locally available GPS collars.
What is it? Innotek is a locally based brand and one of the few gold medal brands on the market. Their GPS-20 system isn't cheap though; the tracking system utilizes start of the art mapping, with dual radio and mobile data tracking modes available. Can track other brand name collars by programming them.
What is it? CatTrack Live is our favourite. Lightweight, tiny (matchstick size) with a rechargeable battery, USB interface, connects to Google earth and uses SIM technology for SMS geo-location coordinates of your lost pet. A cheaper version, CatTrack 1 will let you know where your cat has been wandering via a GPS logger.
Costs: $US49 and $US145
Costs and battery life
As the prices above show, be prepared to pay good money for the privilege of spying on man's best friend. Australia's Innotek for example, sells a device for $1,999?
The other problem with these devices is battery life. GPS receivers need hefty amounts of battery life. Just ask anyone who's ever tried to use GPS on their phones (or in-car GPS devices taken outside for a walk) for extended periods of times.
Thanks to the transmission signal required to triangulate satellites, GPS batteries drain quickly and the GPS collar around your pet's neck is no exception, particularly when you consider the amount of time we leave our pets unattended on a regular basis.
These devices are sold under a number of names and brands, including Sportdog, LoCATor, RoamEO, Petcell, Zoombak and Pettrack.
Another issue is the size of the locator. While larger dogs are at a natural advantage for having a heavy receiver around their large collars, cats are not so lucky. Being much smaller, our feline companions are extremely hard to fit and are only a couple of viable options exist for cat owners. the Mr Lee device uses an adjustable harness to loop around your cat's body, preventing the GPS from becoming too much of a distraction around the cat's neck.
The do-it-yourself guru has two homemade devices available to the general public through his shopping page. One of these, the CatTrack Live transmitter, works satellite positioning using Quad-band GPRS, providing SMS updates and map coordinates from a device no larger than a match stick.