Coming soon to an amusement park, school, or neighbourhood near you could be a whole new generation of children with chips on their wrists.
At least three North American companies - one of them in Montreal - are in a race to develop the first tracking devices small enough to chart the every move of wandering children, pets and even elderly parents.
Photo: New York Times
|DIGITAL SECURITY: Young swimmer wears an electronic wrist nanny, which emits a unique signal that could help find her if she wandered off. Companies are vying to develop more related uses.|
"Security systems protect your home or dwelling. What this technology does is enable people to protect, on an individual basis, what's most important to them - their children. It's a major step forward", said Brendan Fitzgerald, president and chief executive officer of Florida-based Microgistics, which is developing tracking devices for elderly people.
Since May, watch-like tracking devices have been offered for rent at Hyland Hills Water World near Denver, the biggest water park in the United States, to help parents keep tabs on their children at the 26-hectare facility.
Other major amusement parks - officials refuse to say which ones specifically - have also expressed interest.
The ParkWatch device, which rents for between $2 (U.S.) and $3 a day, sends out signals every eight seconds that are unique to each of the clear, watch-like gadgets. The signal is picked up by some 14 antennas around the park and a computer determines, within 3 metres, where a child is on the grounds, said Dan Tomlinson, director of business operations for ParkWatch.
Parents can go to one of six (soon to be seven) scanners on the park grounds to find out their children's whereabouts.
"I thought parents would love them and kids would see them as a leash. But the kids think they're cool. They see them as the ticket to a little more freedom in the park", said Tomlinson.
"We're learning that it's a bigger selling feature than we really fully appreciated six months ago. People are coming back saying, `This is great and it's an additional reason for coming to the park.'"
The ParkWatch system was adapted from technology developed by California-based WhereNet to track parts in auto and other manufacturing plants.
Water World agreed to be a test site for the technology this year in hopes of reducing the number of children - about five an hour every day - who lose their parents.
"This technology has helped us to make parents a lot more comfortable. When you have about 10,000 people in the park on any day, it gives parents peace of mind", said Joann Dobbs, a spokesperson for the water park. "The kids love it because it's a gadget. But it's not a substitute for parental supervision."
Montreal-based Rankin Technologies hopes to have its own cellular phone-based tracking device for people and pets ready by next August. It's a miniaturized version of the Boomerang system it has used to recover some $30 million (Canadian) worth of stolen cars so far.
A spokesperson for Rankin Technologies refused to be specific about how the technology might be used, other than to say it would also be a perfect fit for families or facilities charged with caring for seniors with a tendency to wander or Alzheimer's disease.
"The applications are unlimited - if children are in day camp or if parents live in a rural area and want to be sure where their children are", said Linda Farha, director of communications and industrial relations for the company. "Most parents would be thrilled to know that they could locate their kids within an hour, tops."
But Applied Digital Solutions of Palm Beach, Fla., hopes to take all of this one important step further with a tracking gizmo called the Digital Angel, a dime-sized disk that can be implanted under the skin.
"The thing that separates Digital Angel from a number of others is that it doesn't only track individuals; it can send back diagnostic information when it's implanted - body temperature, heart rate, respiration, glucose levels, things like that", said Robert Jackson, director of investor relations for Applied Digital Solutions.
But some worry that the technology could lead to abuses down the road.
"All of these applications are being proposed with the best of intentions and they make a lot of sense", said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a non-profit group concerned with privacy issues.
"But what if a parent drops the device in the backpack of a 17-year-old, or in the pocket of a spouse who's coming home late at night?"