I love a good spy story. I love to read John Le Carre, Ian Fleming and even Donald Hamilton novels. But I’m not interested in the heroes, like George Smiley or James Bond or Matt Helm. Don’t get me wrong; those guys are great. But I read spy stories for the gadgets. Give me a whole book about MI6’s Q Branch (they’re the ones who make all the gadgets), and I’d be very happy.
When I travel on a motorcycle, getting ready for each trip starts to feel like I’m preparing for a super secret mission. I’m always in the process of testing a new piece of gear, or a newly miniaturized gadget that is designed to make my riding safer, easier and more fun.
My latest obsession is with real spy technology: GPS tracking.
Just a few years ago, GPS tracking was a fantasy, and a tool used by spies. A secret agent would slip a tiny device onto a vehicle, and then track the vehicle’s every move, remotely and in real time. This was a staple of every spy story.
Today, there are dozens of devices that enable exactly this kind of tracking, thanks to the wide dispersion of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. Some of the units are designed for commercial use. For instance, a delivery company with a fleet of trucks might have a need to know exactly where each of their vehicles is located at any given moment, in order to increase efficiency. Some units are designed for safety and parental supervision of minors. A parent with a teenaged driver in the house might want the added security of being able to confirm where their child is going with the car. Some units are designed for personal tracking. Hikers and skiers have been using GPS tracking devices in case of accident or emergency. Some units are still designed for police or spy use, to track bad guys back to their secret lairs. Cool.
For motorcycle travel, I’m interested in GPS tracking for three purposes.
First, a GPS tracking device will be great for safety and security. I’ll mount the unit on my motorcycle when I travel. Most GPS tracking units are so compact that they can be discreetly zip-tied to the frame or inside the fairing without much trouble. Then, if anything happens to me on my ride, or if my bike is stolen, someone will be able to track me down.
Second, I’ll activate GPS tracking in order to keep a record of where I have traveled on my trip. Many of the GPS units available today can be set up to record your routes, beaming location information to the internet. When you get home, you can download the details of your trip, in map and text form, giving you a virtual record of your route, distance traveled, and speed of travel. Even when you plan your route in advance, you can wind up riding down roads that you never plotted, and it’s a great tool to be able to retrieve route information later, so you can share your ride with others – or go back to a favorite spot.
Third, I’ll activate live GPS tracking so that my wife, friends and family can see where I’ve traveled, and where I am at any given moment. Some riders might not like this feature, but I know that my wife will love it. She’ll be able to see where I am, and she’ll know whether I’m riding or stopped. This is more of a fun feature than anything else.
So, where can you get a GPS tracking device? If you own an iPhone 3 or newer, or an Android phone, you already have one. There are several free apps that turn your smartphone into a GPS tracking device. I’m going to try Instamapper first, and see how that goes. Once I turn on the tracking function, my wife will be able to track my movements on her web browser, so she’ll know where I am during my trip. I’ll just have to remember to turn the program off when I get back home – no sense removing all of the mystery from my marriage, right?
The most popular dedicated tracking devices, including Zoomback and SPOT Personal Tracker, start around $100 plus a monthly fee (around $13). They have a more elegant interface than the free smartphone apps, but the distinct disadvantage of not being free – which is a deal breaker for me.
I’ll let you know how this GPS tracking experience works out. Just consider me your own personal product tester at the You Must Be Trippin’ Q Branch