How GPS Tracking works

GPS tracking is a very popular term today. It is almost normal that people are connected to objects, use GPS to locate their vehicle's locations or monitor their route with GPS apps such as Google Maps. But what exactly is meant by GPS tracking and how does a GPS tracker work? This article provides a broad definition of GPS tracking since the development of GPS by the United States Air Force. Further we, PowUnity, a company that developes GPS trackers for e-bikes, explain common applications of GPS with examples chosen largely from the mobility sector such as cars or e-bicycles.

What is GPS Tracking: A Definition of the Global Positioning System

Global positioning system (GPS) can be defined as a direction-finding device usually put on vehicles (vehicle trackers), a person, or an asset 1 to determine their relative locations. The car’s close location or any support is stored in the GPS tracker 2 and transmitted via an internet connection 4 through cellular, Wi-Fi, or radio frequencies 3.

GPS tracking is a method that involves finding out the exact location of something and to monitor it. A GPS tracker contains a GPS component that collects the GPS signals and computes for example the vehicle’s coordinates or the machine to be tracked. A tracking system, for instance, can be placed on vehicles, cell phones, or any GPS-tracker-oriented devices; GPS on these devices can be either be permanently fixed or be portable.

GPS tracking is a method that involves finding out the exact location of something and to monitor it.

The global positioning system works based on providing precise information of f. ex. a car’s exact location or a person or can track a person’s or a car’s movement. Our company, PowUnity, develops a GPS tracker for e-bikes and uses the GPS tracker system to observe the live location and the routes of the vehicles and furthermore to find lost or stolen e-bikes as one can see their location/movement in an app 5.

GPS is currently a worldwide radio-navigation system that depends on around twenty-four satellites 6 and their stations on the ground. The System gets its control from the US defense department as its development was for military operations only. Currently, there are many GPS services across the world since every civilian user is allowed the System without charges or restrictions.

The GPS tracking system utilizes the Global Navigation Satellite System “GNSS” network to integrate various satellites that use microwaves’ signals, and the waves get transmitted to the GPS provide information about the location, the speed or the direction of things. Global positioning system is, therefore, able to provide real-time and past navigation information of the journey.

Development and History of GPS Tracking

The United States Air Force first developed GPS to aid them in sophisticating the martial operations. GPS tracking development is history-based partly on the radio navigation systems like LORAN and DECCA navigator. GPS has aided in at least all the navigation, monitoring, and positioning of vehicles across the globe; it has grown to significant heights up to a point where it applies to almost every aspect of an individual’s life.

The US government owns and operates the GPS network, which was originally developed for military operations.

Sputnik first developed GPS in 1958 when the soviet experts launched the universe’s first satellite. The scientists’ findings at MIT proved that the radio frequencies from the satellite changed their course depending on their locations. The Doppler effect, the emission of frequencies from the satellites, enabled the scientists to obtain the idea that a satellite’s positioning along the orbit can be trailed or tracked right from the ground by calculating the variations in radio frequencies on a signal. The finding of how the global positioning system operates became a breakthrough for the scientists at MIT by creating a massive advantage to the tech world (Siahaan et al., pg. 80-90). The MIT scientist aided the US military by working on a new satellite that could help the military track the villains’ strategic positions and the main targets of terrorists on the ground, air, and water.


The scientists who were working with the US Navy developed the first navigation satellite system called TRANSIT. The satellite could help the navy locate the Us submarines carrying the nuclear missiles used to counter their enemies and terrorists. The TRANSIT technology used five constellation satellites that could give a navigational fix of roughly once per period of sixty minutes, and the System was first successfully put in full practice in 1960.

About five to six years after the implementation of TRANSIT, the US navy developed another satellite called the ESTIMATION satellite with MIT scientists’ help. The satellite provided the ability to put precise clocks in space (Siahaan et al., pg. 80-90). Up to date, the GPS relay on the ESTIMATION technology. In the early 1970s, the first worldwide ground Omega Navigation System got developed, and it was the first radio navigation system to be implemented and put in place. Later on, Rockwell International carried out the first experiment by launch the Block-I GPS satellite. In 1983, the Soviet interceptor plane interfered with the civilian airline by shooting it down, and the civilian airline had entered the restricted Soviet Airspace. Afterward, the US president pronounced the use of GPS tracking devices by all people once it got completed.


Private technological companies such as Aerospace started helping the US military develop an additional satellite along the orbit that sent and received signals from the ground uninterruptedly. After a decade, the United States Air Force developed and launched NAVSTAR, the first satellite of the 24-satellite on the direction-finding scheme. The GPS was made available to the civilian to improve their safety and navigation. This was made possible by removing the GPS’s selective availability since the Gulf War. US martial arm and the scientists at MIT expanded the active oscillating satellites’ sizes to significant numbers plus spares to replace the malfunctioned ones. The operational satellites have increased the accuracy of the GPS significantly. The scientists at MIT and private companies, including the DoD, have worked on developing GPS-based apps leading to the increased range of GPS-based applications that people use in their daily lives.

Emeritus, the Aerospace Corporation president and a well-known engineer, developed the foundation of GPS by making improvements to the Long-range Radio Aid to Navigation “LORAN” use in World War II. The National Aeronautic Association in 1993 was selected as the Global Positioning System Team winner of the Robert J. Collier Trophy, and the trophy stands as the most prestigious aeronautics award in the United States.

How does a GPS tracking device work?

The Global Positioning System’s operations (GPS) utilize the trilateration mathematical principle, the top consists of two categories: 2-D and 3-D Trilateration. For the GPS to make work on the mathematical calculations, the System must know at least two aspects. The first thing to know is the person’s, thing’s or vehicle’s current location or the asset being tracked by at least three satellites or above; the second must identify the distance or the current spread between the thing being traced and the tracing point.

To provide information on the exact location of a moving object (on the ground) practically at least three GPS-satellites are necessary.

The mathematical calculations basing on the principle uses the electromagnetic radio waves traveling at the speed of light. On a commercial view, the GPS device generally records every thing’s location as it travels from one point to another. There are two kinds of GPS devices. One stores the recorded data to the GPS unit itself (passive monitoring). Simultaneously, the other sends the recorded data to a centralized system through a modem on the GPS unit regularly (active monitoring).

Types of Global Positioning Systems

Passive Global Positioning System

Passive Global Positioning System monitors the location of the moving vehicle basing on certain journey events. For instance, passive GPS tracker devices record the vehicle traversed locations for the past 6 hours or more. The information on the passive GPS gets stored on the internal memory or an external device like a memory card. The stored information gets transferred to a computer later for analysis. Occasionally, stored data automatically get sent via the internet and downloaded at a particular point or be requested while on the journey.

Active Global Positioning System

Active global positioning systems (real-time System) is a System that sends information automatically on the GPS device to a central tracking system as the journey continues. Compared to the passive System, active GPS is the better option for commercial purposes. For example, a GPS-enabled vehicle tracker gets installed on every vehicle to collect and transmit the tracking information through a satellite or cellular network.

Active tracking involves combining the cellular networks with the tracking device connected to a moving vehicle such as a car or a bike to transfer the information to a particular server. If the cellular network is not available, the GPS unit stores the internal memory data. They will transfer the data to the server when the cellular network becomes available again. Real-time or active global positioning systems is predominantly essential for vehicle owners (cars, bikes etc.) for security purposes; for example, car trackers pinpoint his vehicle’s exact location at any time in case of when it gets stolen.

Active GPS is the option to track objects in real-time.

The PowUnity BikeTrax GPS-tracker is therefore an active tracking unit that makes it possible for the owner to see the real time location of an e-bike – from everywhere and at any time. After the subscription in the app the customer can see his e-bike on a live map andevery driven route in the route diary. The route diary is one of the app features and is an automatic service. Every GPS location is being saved and sent to the mobile phone every tenth second. Additionally the GPS tracking device is also a theft protection that sends an alert to the smartphone app in case of unauthorized change of the GPS location. The PowUnity customer can decide between a monthly or an annual subscription to use GPS data and the provided tools and features.

Mini GPS trackers

The so-called “mini GPS tracker” is a very popular term within the active global positioning system (real-time tracking). Mini GPS trackers are often used whenever it comes to security applications, for instance monitoring children or pets or protecting vehicles like trucks, cars or bicycles from theft.

A mini GPS tracker for people or pets shall be handy, lightweight and inconspicuous in size as he has to be carried. Trackers that are usually attached to the collar of (domestic) animals should also be waterproof if animals spend a lot of time outdoors.

A mini GPS tracker is an ideal anti-theft device for vehicle tracking. With a SIM card and lightweight electronics, the size should not exceed the size of approx. seven to eight centimeters. On trucks mini trackers can even be mounted inside the rear lights. If a mini GPS tracker is integrated into the vehicle, the likelihood of the tracker being detected at all diminishes.

“Crowd GPS” tracking is not based on GPS satellites and therefore not suitable as theft protection. Read more!

Still, size does not matter only as one of the most important quality characteristic is the battery life of a tracker. The smaller the tracker, the shorter is the battery life. When the tracker is not connected to any power supply (person or pet trackers) the battery needs to be charged. Things are different with mini GPS trackers that are integrated in vehicles and powered directly by the main battery (truck or car trackers).The PowUnity BikeTrax GPS tracker for instance is installed in the engine compartment of e-bikes. The battery life of BikeTrax lasts about three weeks on standby. To ensure uninterrupted GPS reception the tracker is also equipped with an additional battery if the tracker is not powered by the e-bike battery.

The term mini GPS tracker is also likely but falsely used for small coin-seized Bluetooth location chips. Their technology, the so called “Crowd GPS” is misleading for the customer as these chips have nothing to do with the NAVSTAR global positioning system. They neither include a SIM card for data transmission to the mobile phone nor do they determine are moving vehicle’s position (2D position on the ground) from at least three satellites like a real mini vehicle tracker.

How GPS Tracker and Tracking Apps interact

GPS apps that one can download and install from the Apple Store or Google Play (iOS, Android) provide a connection between a GPS tracking device and the smartphone. The connected GPS tracker does not communicate directly with the owner’s mobile phone; rather, it sends the data to an intermediary server. This server forwards the data to the GPS app on the mobile phone. Therefore, the user effectively interacts with the GPS tracker. The GPS tracker installed on vehicles like cars or e-bikes helps the owners of the mobile phone with the tracking app to locate their vehicles’ exact locations or monitor the route in case they are involved in an accident or stolen.

2G is currently best suited for vehicle tracking because it has huge network coverage. Read more!

The GPS signal with the location is transmitted to the smartphone via mobile communication standards of different generations such as 2G, 3G, 4G (second, third and fourth generation) etc. GPRS and LTE are the designations for data transmission within these generations. GPRS is the designation for data transmission within the 2G standard and LTE stands for data transmission within the 4G standard.

* * 2G is currently (as of April 2021) best suited for vehicle tracking because it already has huge network coverage, unlike narrowband IoT.

The 2G standard has been around since the 1990s. This standard has a very high network density and is currently the most suitable technology for protecting vehicles such as e-bikes against theft. In contrast to 2G, narrowband IoT technology has not yet been rolled out nationwide. It can have radio gaps, especially in rural areas.

The PowUnity app, for example, provides the GPS transmitter data for the e-biker in real time. In this case, transmission to the mobile phone takes place via the 2G standard, which is currently the best solution for locating e-bikes and thus also for digital e-bike theft protection. The GPS transmitter is hidden inside the e-bike. A SIM card is integrated in it. An additional battery of the tracker ensures that the GPS tracker still receives and sends an alarm in case of emergency if the power supply (e.g. by the e-bike battery) is switched off or removed.


The GPS is based on providing precise information of the vehicle’s exact position or a person. The GPS is transmitted via an internet connection through cellular, Wi-Fi, or radio frequencies. GPS is currently a worldwide radio-navigation system that depends on around twenty-four satellites and their stations on the ground. GPS is able to provide real-time (active) and past navigation (passive) information of a journey. A mini GPS tracker is an active global positioning system (real-time tracking). His best application area is for example the locating of people or pets, as well as theft protection of vehicles like trucks, cars, bicycles or e-bikes. The size of a mini tracker determines his battery life.

GPS tracking apps provide a connection between a GPS tracker and the mobile phone. The connected GPS tracker communicates indirectly with the owner’s mobile phone via an intermediary server rather.

The location of a vehicle, a person or a thing is transmitted to the smartphone via mobile communication standards of different generations like 2G, 3G, 4G or Narrowband IoT. For the time being, the 2G standard is the best technology to be used in protecting e-bikes against theft, the reason being that the GPS technology is stable and comprehensive.

With GPS tracking apps, we are able to query the exact location of vehicles, equipment and the like at any time via smartphone.

The main advantage of using GPS tracking is that it enhances the assets’ security and allows peace of mind. Furthermore companies’ can use tracking software to optimize processes when higher numbers of GPS tracking devices have to be monitored.The main disadvantage of GPS trackers is that they rely on obtaining data from at least three satellites (2D position) and four satellites (3D position); if they connect with fewer satellites, the positioning cannot be more accurate and does not allow real-time tracking. GPS trackers that do not determine a moving vehicle’s position from at least three satellites, should not be referred to as a GPS tracker.

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