Biochip Implants

Digital Angel


Where on Earth? Ask the Satellites
by Martin Merzer

Source: The Miami Herald

February 14, 2000

George Orwell was only one twenty-fourth right. Twenty-four Big Brothers are watching our every move from 12,420 miles above Earth -- and increasingly guiding us to our destinations, and telling others where we are.

A constellation of satellites called the Global Positioning System, deployed and still controlled by the U.S. military, now helps pilots steer jetliners, captains navigate channels, farmers plow fields, police track criminals, scientists measure mountains and motorists find the nearest Mexican restaurant.

Coming soon from a South Florida company: miniature GPS ``Digital Angel'' receivers implanted under the skin to locate kidnapped children -- or help mom and dad figure out if junior is really ``at the library.''

More than four million GPS gadgets of all kinds have been bought in recent years, and they're selling at a rate of 250,000 every month.

``The technology is right for its time,'' said Richard Sullivan, chairman and chief executive of Applied Digital Solutions, a Palm Beach company developing the dime-size implantable Digital Angel tracking device. ``We couldn't have done this five years ago.''

The same could be said for the vast universe of devices now based on GPS technology.

Featured just a few years ago on only the most luxurious automobiles, satellite-based navigation systems are now widely available on near-luxury models like the $30,000 Acura TL sedan.

Startlingly precise, linked to a DVD player, data disc and a computerized voice, the system superimposes the car's position on maps so detailed they include tiny suburban cul-de-sacs and can direct motorists to virtually any address in major cities and many other parts of the country.

``In 100 feet,'' the car's pleasant female voice commands, ``turn left.''

Michael Mondshein, a salesman at Rick Case Acura in Fort Lauderdale, said they can't keep the things in stock. The system accounts for $2,000 of the car's cost.

``We're selling every one we can get our hands on,'' Mondshein said. ``Some people just want the newest invention, but a lot of people are really using them. You can program a trip from Weston to Los Angeles on this thing.''


Other automakers offer more sophisticated versions of the system, linked to sensors and a cellular phone line or other communications equipment. Those devices automatically call for help when a car is involved in a crash -- and tell a monitoring service where the vehicle is.

That's the high end of consumer applications. At the low end, hand-held receivers that cost only $100 are being used by hikers, mountain climbers and others.

In addition, scientists are finding new jobs for GPS devices every day:

Geologists from the University of Miami use GPS-equipped sensors to measure tiny but significant changes on Popocatepetl, a restless 17,802-foot volcano near Mexico City.

Other scientists remeasured Mount Everest last year with GPS technology and raised its height to 29,035 feet, a promotion of seven feet over its previously believed size.

Space shuttle Endeavour, launched Friday from the Kennedy Space Center, is carrying a special GPS receiver that will help the crew map the entire planet.

Last year, the National Hurricane Center began dropping GPS-equipped devices into hurricanes to measure wind speeds and monitor surrounding conditions that steer storms -- vital advancements already helping Floridians and everyone in hurricane zones.

``We now have a much better handle on intensity and track forecasting,'' said James Franklin, a researcher and forecaster at the hurricane center in west Miami-Dade County.

In development since 1978 but fully operational only since 1995, the array of GPS satellites cost the military $14 billion to design, build, launch and maintain.

In simple terms, it works like this:

The 24 satellites orbit continuously above Earth, so thoroughly blanketing the planet that every spot is constantly within ``sight'' of five to eight satellites.

Employing graduate-level geometry and extremely accurate atomic clocks, the signals from three satellites can be ``triangulated'' by ground-based receivers and combined with the time signal from a fourth satellite to calculate locations with extreme precision -- generally within a few yards.


The system's original purpose was to pinpoint missile attacks, direct warplanes and rescue lost or endangered military personnel. In fact, when Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady was shot down over Bosnia in 1995, his hand-held GPS device helped rescuers quickly pluck him out of danger.

But realizing that the $14 billion really came from taxpayers, President Clinton signed a directive in 1996 that officially endorsed ``acceptance and integration of GPS into peaceful civil, commercial and scientific applications worldwide.''

And at no cost whatsoever -- anyone can use the signals for free.

The commercial race was under way. Many forms of technology can be added to GPS receivers to make them useful, and the sky is the limit:

Some airlines employ GPS devices as navigational aids. When combined with an automatic pilot system, the technology is sufficiently precise to perform completely computerized hands-off landings -- though it's not currently used for that purpose.

Oceangoing vessels and railroad trains also are using the technology for navigational or tracking purposes.

Last year, Florida prison officials began using a GPS monitoring system to keep an electronic eye on criminals sentenced to house arrest. Spokesmen called it far more effective than the previous radio-frequency system. Unhappy legislators noted that it also was far more expensive -- costing the state $9 per day for each prisoner compared with $3 per day.

Tractors equipped with GPS devices can plow fields with much greater accuracy -- and even work at night or in dense fog.

In Iowa, police slipped a GPS tracking device on a 1993 Chevrolet Corsica owned by two suspected burglars. Officers monitored the father-son team last November by satellite, arrested them and charged them with two burglaries and one attempted break-in.

A backhoe stolen late last year from a storage shed in Florida's Hernando County was tracked by police to a nearby job site. You guessed it -- GPS once again.


Although still under development, GPS gadgets envisioned by Sullivan's company could aid homebound patients, diplomatic and other personnel on dangerous assignments, and children who have been abducted -- or who require remote-control surveillance by their parents.

Engineers at the firm are working on a tiny receiver-transmitter that could be implanted under the skin, powered by the movement of muscles and activated by distant monitors or by the ``wearer'' through, say, a tiny button on a wristwatch.

One touch of the button and help is on the way -- guided by satellites high overhead.

Sullivan said his company's Digital Angel Web site registers 1 1/2 million visits every month, even though the devices will not be introduced until the end of the year at the earliest and the cost to the consumer has not been determined.

``We've had enormous response to this,'' he said.

As for the privacy issue -- the Orwellian fear of constant surveillance as depicted in 1949 by the novel 1984 -- Sullivan doesn't see a problem.

``We hope that we always live in a voluntary society,'' he said. ``We hope that the things we develop are for the betterment of mankind.

``But one thing I know for sure is that you'll be seeing more and more of this convergence of man and computer.''

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