Ham Radio APRS vs iPhone GPS Tracking

A recent marriage to Kd8KRS (Jane) and a move into a new house with a new exercise schedule – walking “Fast Eddy” our dog – has given me some insight into two interesting tracker technologies.  One uses ham radio (Automatic Packet Reporting System – or – APRS) and the other uses proprietary hardware and software via Apple’s iPhone.  They each have advantages and disadvantages.  I thought I would share my insights since many hams may not know about the iPhone advantages and many iPhone enthusiasts may not know about the ham radio advantages.

First – both of these trackers use a GPS sensor to send data over a radio (ham radio or cell phone, which is a radio) into the internet where some or anyone can display the data on a map like Google Maps, etc..  They both have applications that do some data processing and analysis (reports speed of travel, direction of travel, elevation reports, etc.).  My ham radio APRS device is about the size of a cell phone.  It attaches via cables to a power source, a GPS sensor, and the radio.  I use a relatively small GPS sensor – about the size of a half dollar and maybe ¼” thick.  And it’s magnetized.  Very James Bondish…  I only track myself, for the record.  An iPhone has a built-in GPS sensor.  No external cords are required.

My ham radio beats the iPhone in ability to transmit the GPS data long distanes.  I have seen my data reach Milwaukee, WI APRS iGates (ham radios connected to the internet for APRS data transmission) from Appleton, WI – around 100 mile trip.  A cell phone is limited to line of sight – 60 miles at BEST, but probably more like 15 miles to the nearest cell phone tower?  Also, a cell phone used in a car has limited signal because it has a tough time getting out of the car’s metal cage.  A ham radio on a car can talk around the world (my record from Wisconsin is Italy) on the right frequency.

To investigate the iPhone application I saw, go to www.RunKeeper.com .  One advantage of RunKeeper is that you can post your tracked results to Twitter or FaceBook with one click.  It takes a bit more to post APRS maps.  I can see all of Jane’s results because I have her e-mail address and password.  RunKeeper does accumulation of data by week, etc..  It is really nice to use and is fun to be able to see how long you’ve walked, etc..  One disadvantage is that you have to post the data to Twitter or FaceBook for others to see it if they don’t have your e-mail address and password.  With ham radio APRS, the data is instantly publically available at the following mapping sites – for example to see my APRS tracks, use AB9NN-9 as the log-in or callsign:

I believe that other cell phones have some tracking and mapping capability.  Check with the provider first before buying.  Also, carefully consider what you want for a tracking capability before use.  For example, SkyWarn wants us to use APRS locally.  Buying an expensive cell phone for that application would be a waste of money.

Stay radio active!

Jon Kreski, AB9NN


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