Implant Issues More than Skin Deep

Implant Issues More than Skin Deep

August 1, 2006 By: Tracy Cozzens GPS World

Applied Digital Solutions created a buzz when it tested a prototype of a GPS implant in the spring of 2003. The disc-shaped personal location device measured more than 6 centimeters in diameter and more than a centimeter deep — about the size of a heart pacemaker.

While Applied Digital Solutions suggested the market for the device would be potential hostage targets and outdoorsmen who want to be found, the GPS implant idea stirred controversy among privacy advocates and skepticism among scientists.

Today, Applied Digital Solutions is concentrating on marketing a much less power-hungry radio frequency identification (RFID) implant.

“VeriChip Corporation conducted R&D on the feasibility of a human-implantable GPS-capable chip but shelved the project after determining that current power source technologies have not yet scaled down to a size compatible with an implantable device,” said company spokesman John Procter. Instead, VeriChip is focused on developing its FDA-approved human-implantable RFID chip, particularly in the health-care market, where it’s used to link patients to their electronic medical records.


A GPS implant might be the size of this VeriChip implant, which uses RFID technology to carry scannable information.

That doesn’t mean the idea of a GPS implant has died. “The justice system is interested in an implantable device,” said Steve Aninye, president of Omnilink Systems of Alpharetta, Georgia. “We’re working with research and manufacturing entities to work through the challenges.”

Omnilink Systems manufactures bracelets and anklets tracking devices used by the justice system to track parolees. The company’s current system uses GPS, cell phones, RFID, and situation-specific sensors to monitor people and objects, and inform clients immediately if their status changes. Besides the justice market, the devices are being used in public safety (such as alerting children and parents to the proximity of sex offenders through a cell phone), healthcare, and emergency response.

While Omnilink hasn’t yet developed a GPS implant, the company is researching the main roadblocks to such a device: power, removal, and impaired environment.
An Omnilink tracking bracelet, now used by numerous justice agencies, could be the forerunner of a GPS implant.
An Omnilink tracking bracelet, now used by numerous justice agencies, could be the forerunner of a GPS implant.

Power. Getting enough power to the implant is probably the largest obstacle. In the traditional areas for tracking, such as fleet optimization, size and power aren’t a problem because the devices are installed in cars or on equipment. But an implant would naturally have to be small.

“Some schools of thought believe you can use biometric readings in humans to generate power,” Aninye said, but such a technology isn’t yet commercially viable.

As for people-tracking bracelets, because they’re external they can be easily recharged. In the justice market, batteries last only three or four days because of intense around-the-clock monitoring. In other markets, the batteries can last 14 days or more. “Our devices are designed to go 21 days between charges,” Aninye said. “Omnilink hopes to achieve a 21-to 30-day life cycle.”

Removal. For a GPS implant to be useful to law enforcement, the recipient should be unable to remove it by picking it from under the skin. “Removal is a critical challenge,” Aninye said. “A person can’t be able to visit a tattoo shop and have it removed.”

Removal isn’t an issue with the wrist and ankle bracelets now in use. Omnilink’s ankle and wristbands detect tampering or any removal attempt. Even if the wearer is crafty enough to slip off the device without tampering with its body or strap, the device detects a change in body temperature and sends an alert to the monitoring system.

GPS-Impaired Environments. A final challenge is ensuring that the GPS implant works reliably in GPS-impaired environments, such as underground subway tunnels that lack direct line-of-sight to GPS satellite signals.

For its external tracking devices, Omnilink works with cell-phone network providers such as Qualcomm to penetrate impaired environments with assisted GPS and advanced forward link trilateration (AFLT), which measures signals from nearby cellular towers.

Privacy Concerns. Assuming the issues of sufficient power, preventing removal, and an unimpaired signal are addressed, another major issue looms for GPS implants: privacy.

“The fact you can covertly figure out where people have been and are going is a huge concern,” Aninye said. “As these issues are being sorted out, Omnilink has decided to focus on markets where people voluntarily opt in, or where community laws require tracking of convicted criminals. “Outside the public safety arena, a person would have to choose to be protected for us to monitor you.”

Omnilink does have such customers. They are required to sign a one-page agreement consenting to monitoring. While the technology could ostensibly be used to monitor people covertly, Omnilink has no plans to use it in such a way, Aninye said. Even people who want to be monitored, such as employees at a secure workplace, are no longer monitored once they leave the office.

Omnilink is participating on a new Location Based Services Action Team sponsored by the CTIA Wireless Internet Caucus. The committee is tussling with privacy issues as it explores the legal and social ramifications of tracking people. Its members plan to recommend best practices, guidelines for terminology, and standards of use.

In the meantime, an implantable GPS device exists only in the realm of speculation.

About (Geeldon)

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