A high-tech satellite locator system originally meant to help parents keep closer tabs on their children is now being used by some educators, enabling them to pinpoint students’ whereabouts on field trips and in other potentially dangerous situations when teachers lead kids outside the safety of the schoolyard.

Called the GPS Locator for Kids, the lockable wristwatch-like device manufactured by California-based Wherify Wireless combines the precision of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and the reach of a PCS wireless network to track students via the internet within 30 meters of their actual location.

Although company executives originally marketed the devices as providing peace of mind for parents–many of whom have become increasingly protective of their children in the wake of several high-profile child abductions and the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks–at least one school thus far has begun experimenting with the technology on field trips to allay parents’ concerns and ensure that students are returned home safely.

To explore how the devices might work in a group setting, Wherify executives outfitted a teacher at Christ Lutheran School–a private religious institution in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.–with one of its colorful wristband locators while she led a group of 35 eighth-graders on a tour of Washington, D.C.

The device, which works along the same lines as a LoJack for retrieving stolen cars, enabled parents to follow the progress of their children throughout the nation’s capital using a series of online and aerial maps provided by the company as part of its monthly subscription locator service.

Christ Lutheran Principal Jim Neumann said parents were thoroughly intrigued by the idea of tracking their children’s progress from home. “We got a number of calls from parents who were really excited about being able to locate their kids as they stood outside of places like the Jefferson Memorial,” he said.

Though parents had access to the service from their home computers, school officials did not have an opportunity to use the technology, Neumann said. Currently, the school is in talks with Wherify to use the locators for a similar trip later this school year. If all goes as planned, Neumann said he would consider providing training for educators as well as less tech-savvy parents, adding, “If we’re going to use it, we really should be using it to the utmost.”

Still, the experiment left a number of questions unanswered. For instance, while a single locator device enabled worried parents to keep a virtual eye on the group as a whole, the technology as it was used in this instance would have been little help to a student who was lost or somehow became separated from the pack.

So far, Wherify has yet to test the technology on individual students. But according to Bob Stern, the company’s director of corporate communications, that idea is under consideration.

He believes the success of the Lutheran experiment shows there is a place for GPS tracking technology in schools. “It’s opened the door,” he said. “It has substantiated the benefit of this technology and the use of these types of applications.”

Schools in other parts of the world also appear to be considering such devices.

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that a recent kidnapping in the rural Japanese city of Murakami spurred educators there to consider a similar GPS tracking service for more than 2,700 junior high school students. Officials said it was the first such effort in Japan. In the United States, Wherify’s version of the electronic wristband sells for $200–currently too expensive to make it practical schoolwide. The accompanying locator service can be purchased by parents for a monthly subscription of between $20 and $45, depending on the number of times subscribers plan to use the system.

Each Locator for Kids is equipped with a remote locking feature to prevent children from removing the device once they’ve vanished from the caretaker’s sight. Parents and guardians can open and close the lock remotely by calling the company, which then beams a signal across its nationwide PCS network to disable the catch. Each device also comes with a key fob, enabling customers to open the lock manually, Stern said.

In the event that a lock is somehow disabled without consent, the wristband is equipped with a tamper sensor that immediately alerts Wherify personnel to the breach.

Each device has about 60 hours of standby battery life.

The original bracelet locators were designed for students ages 4-12, but Stern said the company also is developing a device for teens and adults, which can be carried on a lanyard. The technology has become popular among a number of families and older adults whose loved ones suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, he said.

Links:

Wherify Wireless
http://www.wherifywireless.com/prod_watches.htm