I'm From the Government and I'm Here to Help Your Field Force

My girlfriend's uncle, Hans, who lives in southern Germany, is something of a technology wonk. In fact, he's a regular Bavarian Professor Gadget. A retired design engineer for one of Munich's largest truck manufacturers, Hans is never out of arm's reach of one gizmo or another. Today we were talking--if one can really call trading a few fractured "Germlish" sentences talking--about the technological advances of fish finders (marine electronic equipment used to locate fish), which, I was somehow able to piece together, are outlawed in Germany.

But one of Hans' true prizes is his handheld GPS receiver. He totes it in the door pocket of his BMW and whips it out whenever we hit the road. Forget the Bahamas, Cabo San Lucas or the French Riviera. You have not been on vacation until you've ridden alongside Uncle Hans and his GPS receiver on the autobahn. As the speedometer nears 195 kilometers an hour (121 mph), he's got one hand on the wheel and the other stretching across the dashboard, trying to position his Magellan 2000 next to his radar detector so it can pick up enough satellite signals to lock in our position somewhere near the Austrian hinterlands.

When I tried to explain to Hans that the U.S. government had just removed selective availability (SA) from GPS signals--and had just made his $100 receiver up to five times more accurate free of charge--he and his wife, Isolde, looked at me like I was trying to sell them a bridge across the strom River. While all the Deutsch-English dictionaries in the Amazon.com warehouse aren't enough to help me decipher GPS technology for Hans, our government's recent decision could be a boon for businesses that rely on location data for field force automation.

GPS Just Got Better

In May, President Clinton announced that the United states was eliminating SA six years ahead of schedule. SA, the built-in degradation of GPS signals, made civilian receivers less accurate than military units, and was enough to throw off GPS receivers by as much as 100 meters (328 feet). For consumers, this made finding a favorite fishing hole or tracking a backcountry ski trail a bit of a hassle. But for enterprise users trying to leverage GPS for competitive advantage, SA cut their options for building business solutions. New technology now enables the U.S. military and First Allies to degrade the GPS signal on a regional basis that does not affect civilian receivers.

Now that SA is out of the picture, off-the-shelf GPS receivers will theoretically be accurate to within 20 meters (65 feet). With the flick of a switch, terminating SA is making even Beltway politicians start to sound like they know what they're talking about. "The decision to discontinue selective availability is the latest measure in an ongoing effort to make GPS more responsive to civil and commercial users worldwide," President Clinton said. "This increase in accuracy will allow new GPS applications to emerge and continue to enhance the lives of people around the world."

Improved Applications for Your Field Force

The elimination of SA could be a turning point for mobile workforces. The potential for integrating more precise location technology into enterprise applications is practically unlimited, but there are a number of field force solutions that would seem to be affected immediately. The following are some areas where you and your company should look for answers:

Vehicle navigation: There is nothing more frustrating--let alone time-consuming and money-wasting--to a manager of a mobile workforce than sending employees out in the field without their knowing where they're headed. Certainly there are robust, proven GPS mapping solutions in use in transportation-based industries, but even the best software is only as trustworthy as the GPS signal, which could easily misroute drivers by a block or two--or worse if they follow a digital map onto the wrong expressway ramp. Now a driver equipped with a GPS-based digital map can follow a route with more confidence and accuracy, increasing efficiency in the field.

Fleet management: While drivers in the field can more closely track the stops they must make, managers in the office can more closely monitor the movements and location of their mobile equipment. Being able to pinpoint, within 60 feet, the exact location of an 18-wheeler rolling down an interstate in the middle of Nebraska won't earn anyone any more stock options, but what about when that big rig is parked in a 10-acre lot with 100 other trucks? Using GPS under optimal conditions, an employee will be able to zero-in on that truck--or railroad car or cargo plane--within 60 feet. Companies will be able to better locate assets and, in some cases, eschew or replace expensive and proprietary terrestrial tracking systems.

Asset management: Manufacturing companies will be able to monitor where their products are in their supply chains more effectively via satellite. For example, an automaker in Detroit can determine not only the location of a full cargo ship as it sails across the Atlantic toward England but also the disposition of its cars as they are unloaded from the ship to a parking lot 100 meters from the dock in Liverpool.

Road maintainence:. For years, organizations such as transportation and highway departments have been using specialized GPS units to make measurements that standard receivers could not handle. Leveraging differential GPS (DGPS), these expensive receivers were necessary in applications that required accuracy within about 300 feet. Now, more cost-effective hardware that reads standard GPS signals can replace these high-end budget-killers.

Emergency services:. The benefits of terminating SA in life-threatening situations is clear enough: The closer emergency personnel can get to a fire, accident or crime scene, the better the chances of saving lives and property. But a more subtle application of this "new" GPS technology might come in e-911. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will soon mandate that all new mobile phones be equipped with location technology to facilitate emergency response. While the government and industry have yet to decide on specific standards, GPS now seems to be a viable alternative. This could lead to a less expensive solution than something such as radio tower triangulation.

Now is the time to investigate how GPS fits into your mobile strategy. After all, it isn't often that the government actually makes one of your everyday business tools exponentially more accurate. If nothing else, it's time to look into investing in GPS technology vendors like Magellan, Garmin and Trimble. The goverment predicts that in the next three years the market for GPS applications will double from $8 billion to more than $16 billion.

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