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Technology 101

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If this is your first time shopping for a location management system, the acronyms might seem like alphabet soup.

You may be comfortable using GPS in your car, but wonder how you can use the same technology to help locate a person. Here is a run-down of common tracking technologies and information about emerging trends.


What you should know

  • No system is 100 percent accurate. Some devices don't work well inside buildings.
  • Some systems can only locate a person to a general vicinity. Weather may even be a factor.
  • A location management service is not the same as a 24-hour companion.
  • There may be a time delay in receiving alerts based on the monthly plan purchased.

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GPS (Global Positioning System)

Good to know: Many location management services rely on GPS technology. GPS depends on satellites to provide positioning and navigation information. The device communicates with satellites and figures out the distance to each and then uses this information to deduce its own location. In order for GPS to work, there must be a clear line of sight between the device and the satellites.

Advantages: GPS is not dependent on the availability of a network and can provide very precise, worldwide outdoor positioning information at any time of day.

Limitations: Natural barriers, such as mountains, thick foliage or clouds, and artificial obstructions, such as large buildings and dense communities, can hinder satellite signals. For this reason, GPS tracking inside buildings is seldom possible. Also, GPS tracking in large cities is not always reliable.

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Network Assisted GPS (A-GPS)

Good to know: A-GPS technology works in conjunction with GPS by using cell towers to triangulate locations.

Advantages: A-GPS can provide indoor positioning information with greater accuracy and is usually faster than unassisted GPS.

Limitations: A drawback to A-GPS is the availability and reach of the cellular network it gets its boost from. If you travel out of the network's reach, your device won't be able to pick up the signals.

Before choosing a device, find out if the network the device depends upon is reliable where the person with Alzheimer's lives and in the areas he or she is likely to travel.

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Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

Good to know: RFID works through the transmission of radio waves between a transponder, an antenna and a receiver. The RFID chip transmits a signal to the receiver through the antenna and provides data on a person's location.

Advantages: Some RFID chips require no batteries (they use power from the initial radio signal to transmit their response) and so offer long-term reliability.

Limitations: Key limitations of RFID are the need for multiple pieces of equipment and a limited signal range. Additionally, most systems using RFID technology offer the service through local law enforcement so it is necessary to determine whether your community supports a RFID location system.

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Online applications

Good to know: Some location management services will have an online application allowing families to locate on demand through an online mapping tool wherever they have access to the internet. Some applications also provide the option of setting up zones and will alert the family if the person leaves the zone.

Advantages: Online applications allow families to proactively manage the location of the person living with Alzheimer's. Families can use the application to look up the person's location at any time. Applications that provide the ability to set zones can send alerts when the person leaves the zone, helping the family manage the person's location from afar.

Limitations: For alerts to be sent when the person leaves the zone, the device and the application must communicate at regular intervals. The communication between the device and the application typically takes place on a cellular network. The communication can be impeded if the network coverage is not adequate, impacting the application's ability to send a zone alert. Additionally, the time interval between communications is determined by the monthly service plan. It is important for families to understand what that time interval is when they make choices about zones. For example, if the device communicates every 30 minutes with the application, a zone alert could take from 1 to 30 minutes to be received by the family.

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Technology trends

Technology moves quickly, and that's why the Alzheimer's Association is keeping up to date on emerging technologies. We are making sure we know about the latest location management devices and networks so that we can provide families the information and education needed to pick the device that best meets their safety needs.

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Formed in 1980, the Alzheimer's Association is the world's leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer's care, support and research.