Satellite tracking system automatically calls to say school bus is coming

Waiting in the rain or snow for the school bus soon might be a thing of the past, if a new technology developed by a company called NotiCom catches on. The company, based in Destin, Fla., has launched a satellite tracking system that it claims will notify parents automatically when their child’s bus is about to arrive in the neighborhood.

The service, called BusCall, also tells parents when the bus is running late, and school districts can tap into it as a low-cost fleet tracking and management system, according to company spokeswoman Colleen Clements.

“There are all sorts of [bus-tracking] tools already out there, but they tend to be expensive,” Clements said. “We see this as a way for schools to have a low or no-cost service that does the same thing.”

With a school district’s permission, the buses are equipped with $1,300 tracking antennas, or “vehicle control units,” which send signals to a computerized base station to track the exact location of each bus. The station then sends out automated phone calls to parents alerting them when their child’s bus reaches a pre-designated distance from their homes.

The technology behind BusCall, which the company calls “advance notification of impending arrival,” is patent-protected, Clements said. “To our knowledge, [the notification system] is unique,” she said.

‘No downside’

NotiCom supplies the equipment, but the actual service is provided by a local wireless phone company. Instead of selling the system to school districts, NotiCom markets it to the phone companies to sell to their customers as a subscription-based, value-added service, such as caller ID or call waiting.

Phone companies would purchase the equipment from NotiCom and operate the base station. Schools, in turn, would be able to connect to the base station’s computers via an internet hook-up to receive real-time information about the status of their bus fleets.

The service will debut in Minnesota in April and will cost parents about $4 per month. NotiCom’s first client, Midwest Wireless Communications, plans to test the system in Marshall, Minn., this spring and offer BusCall to other communities in southern Minnesota later this fall.

Though it’s too early to gauge the response among the parents in Marshall, Clements said NotiCom already has been contacted by several school districts expressing their interest. Besides the potential to use BusCall as a fleet tracking system, the system offers a way to keep kids safe while they wait for the bus and reduces the chance that they’ll miss it, she said.

“The school districts we’ve talked to have been very receptive–they can’t see a downside,” Clements said.

Jerry Cain, director of operations for the Escambia County, Fla., School District, agreed. When looking for a system to track the county’s 360 buses running routes every day, Cain found that most commercial systems cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 per bus to implement–without even providing real-time data.

When the district learned of BusCall, it offered to help beta test the system at Scenic Heights Elementary School. Cain has been very pleased by what he has seen so far, he said: It not only provides a free bus-tracking system for the school, but also offers a valuable service to the community.

“I can’t speak for its profitability for the [phone companies], but I hope a provider in this area will pick it up,” he said. “As a parent, knowing that my child is safe inside the house until the bus comes is worth the cost of a trip to McDonald’s every month.”


Midwest Wireless Communications

Escambia County School District

Dennis Pierce

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