WASHINGTON — About a year ago the U.S. Postal Service came to the small California companyTrackingTheWorld and asked them to design a device that would help target inefficiencies in the mail processing system. While that request was right in the sweet spot of their skill set, the Postal Service had some unique requirements that would make the project unlike anything the company had ever done before.
Based in Burlingame, Calif., TrackingTheWorld, which was founded in 2001, designs and sells devices that use the GPS satellite constellation to track just about anything. Most of their products record their position and speed and can transmit that data to a program that can be viewed on a computer or mobile phone with a lag time of about 15 seconds.
State and local police and federal agents make up a large proportion of the company’s business, but selling to the public has created more inventive uses for their devices. One California homebuilder used a device to track some refrigerators that miscreants had been stealing from his newly constructed homes.
The Postal Service wanted something that would fit into a standard No. 10 envelope and provide its location at all times and record that data for later analysis.
The devices could be used only to receive – not transmit – data, because the letters would be traveling by airplane. Federal regulation prohibits this kind of data transmission during a plane’s takeoff and landing. It also had to be less than 7 millimeters thick.
“We actually didn’t design any data-logging [devices] prior to this,” company co-founder Jude Daggett said. “We were more of a real-time company. Most of our products you could watch move on a map.”
In preparation for the design of such a receiver, Daggett and co-founder Gilbert Walz toured a mail processing facility in Denver to get a feel for the process mailed letters are subjected to.
“We watched them zip through the machines at 12 letters per second,” Daggett said. “They needed a package that was thin enough, flexible enough and light enough to do that.”
It took them almost six months to develop the first prototype, which they deemed the “Letter Logger.” The second-generation unit will be ready for use in the next couple of weeks.
uses a GPS receiver manufactured by the Swiss company uBlox and a microprocessor built by Texas Instruments. The receiver is powerful enough to lock onto a satellite within seconds, helping it save power, Walz said. The device stores data to a solid-state memory disk, which it can then export to text that can be displayed graphically with Google Earth.
The Postal Service paid for the company’s research and development efforts and bought small quantities of the prototypes. Though no contracts are yet in place, Walz is expecting the Postal Service to order around 5,000 units at a cost of $3 million to $4 million. Other government agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation also have expressed interest, Walz said, and postal services in Europe have bought some of the units as well.
understands being in the tracking device business means his products could be used for ethically questionable purposes, but it is strictly a business to him.
“A huge proportion of our business is used for state and federal law enforcement purposes,” he said. “And then there are folks buying our equipment to track their spouses. Sure there are things used for the wrong purposes and for good purposes. I don’t really draw a line on that.”