No, Virginia, There is No Such Thing as GPS Microchips (yet) Part 3 of 3

Welcome to part 3 of our series investigating the whole “Why don’t they just put GPS into microchips?” question.  If you missed part one (all about GPS) or part two (all about microchips), take a moment and check them out.  We’ll wait.
Okay, so now that we are all up to speed, let’s quickly chat about GPS tracker systems (which DO exist) and how they work:

GPS Tracker Systems:

A GPS tracker system is basically a receiver and transmitter system. A device is placed in a vehicle or perhaps on a pet (think of the GPS dog collars) that has a GPS receiver inside. Receivers can actually be pretty small (fingernail to quarter sized), but require a battery to operate – that’s where the size of today’s GPS pet collars comes in. So this device will receive the broadcasted data points from the GPS satellite system to mark and store its location on circuitry inside it.

GPS tracking collars in action. Image from
GPS tracking collars in action.
Image from

It then uses the cellular network (same thing your cellphone uses to make calls and upload pictures to Facebook), to send that information up into the “cloud” so whatever computer software system built to work with that device can take all that location information and spit it back out to you. So all GPS trackers must be both a receiver (which needs a battery) and a transmitter (which also needs power to send out cellular data). If you’ve grokked all of this – there’s a huge insight to why we don’t have implantable GPS devices for pets. And that leads us to…

  1. A GPS receiver is a pretty sophisticated piece of equipment that requires electrical power to operate and receive GPS satellite data to calculate the receiver’s location.
  2. A microchip, on the other hand, is not an information receiver, it’s an information transmitter (and only when “woken up” by an information receiver) – so there is NO power source in microchips as they exist in 2016.
  3. In order for a “GPS Microchip” to work, it would have to be both a receiver and a transmitter.  It has to receive the GPS system’s data so it knows where it is and then broadcast a signal with that location data to you so you can find your pet with that chip inside. That requires a lot more size that current chips and requires a power source.

Those three things alone pretty much sum up why there are currently no GPS microchips. BUT WAIT! There’s more…

  1. Remember how important the quality of the receiver is to getting the most accurate navigation information? Well think about it – your old iPhone 2’s battery drained ridiculously fast when you used the GPS, and eventually, the hardware in the phone couldn’t keep up with the badass navigation software developments (and the camera sucked, too), so you gave up the ghost and upgraded.  And now, the very best smartphones are pretty big — several inches high & wide, even if they are ridiculously thin.  And the newest, fastest, most advanced devices are VERY expensive.  My new Galaxy 7 phone that has really decent GPS capabilities (the accuracy I would want for my a furry FAMILY member) retails for over $600.  Folks already balk at the $100-200 price tags of the current GPS pet collars on the market. The price point necessary for a highly advanced device like a GPS microchip would be priced out of range of many pet parents.
  2. As tiny as technology is nowadays, do you really believe that they can take all the hardware that is required for a GPS tracker AND a battery source and fit it into something the size of a grain of RICE?? Come on, dude.
  3. Let’s think about your cellphone again (and current GPS pet collars, too.) Not only do they require a battery – they also require access to a cellular network so they can transmit their location data back into the cloud to let you know where you (or your pet) is.  (Lots of folks don’t realize this when they research GPS pet collars). Smartphone apps like Waze and Google Navigator don’t work without a cellular network.  You don’t have cell coverage, you ain’t using gettin’ anywhere, bud, with those apps.  And without cellular coverage, your pet’s collar isn’t transmitted back for you to see where they are on your handy smartphone app, either. What does this mean for your pet and a possible GPS microchip?  Well….
    1. Just like with today’s GPS pet collars, you’d most likely have to pay a monthly cellular fee for the chip to even work
    2. AND…if your pet was out of cellular range…the chip might be transmitting (and burning battery power), but its data is not reaching the cellular network…or you.
  4. Biocompatibility – so far, there is no battery operated device (even for humans in things like a pacemaker) that is biocompatible AND rechargeable so that you can just surgically implant it and forget it. Even pacemakers (which are HUGE compared to a pet microchip) have their batteries changed every few years and require regular check-ups to make sure everything is still operational.
  5. Think of the current GPS collars on the market – the smallest one is
    Ullr has been fully charged. Penny, however, has run out of juice.

    still the size of a small brownie and they ALL have internal batteries that have to be recharged every few days. Your pet runs off on the last day of charge left – that sucker might be out of juice before you can track Fido down. Not one pet parent I know would ever consider surgically implanting a device as big as current GPS tracker into our pets. Plus, I cannot even imagine having to use some sort of charging port (ewww!) so I could juice up Penny & Ullr’s internal GPS tracker every few days – not to mention, neither would ever sit still for that long.

So, no, Virginia, GPS Microchips do not exist. No, they are coming out later this year. NO, there is no government conspiracy to hide this technology from us. And NO, please do not be lured in by some bogus click-bait story that links to a $20 “GPS Dog Tracking Microchip Solution” on Amazon (I checked it out for you — it links to actual microchips, syringe and all, to inject in your pet, or take to a vet to have them  inject it for you — not GPS Microchips, even though a lot of people in the reviews clearly bought the BS of the post and thought they were).  Is there promising technology that might someday lead to a GPS microchip? Absolutely (check out the section below for a cautionary tale AND the technology that inspired it).  But unfortunately, we’re still years away.

So – in the meantime, do the following:

  1. Get your pet microchipped, register the damn thing, and for the love of all that’s holy, keep the information up to date!
  2. Make sure they have a current external ID tag on at all times (this one is obviously my favorite for soooo many reasons).
  3. If you want GPS, invest in a collar – but make sure to keep it charged up at all times and, please, don’t forgo an ID tag just because your pet is wearing a GPS collar (batteries run out, water kills electronics and your pet might be out of cell network range).
  4. Finally, Geocache with your dog – you’ll not only get great exercise with your pooch and have some fun exploring the world around you, but you’ll also start to get an idea of how GPS navigation really works.

Cautionary tale:

Some of you may have heard about Kickstarter campaign a little over a year ago from a new company that claims to have invented and filed multiple patents on what we’ve all been waiting for – a GPS trackable microchip!!  Ta da!  Um…not so fast. Make your own judgement here, but most folks are chalking this up as a scam: the Kickstarter campaign never launched, the website is now down, and the Facebook page went silent after unrelated fraud charges against the company’s owner (who is also an actress and comedienne under a different name) became public – charges to which she plead guilty.  So, yeah….

Ah, but wait…there’s more! The technology they claim to be using in these magical chips is a REAL thing that might one day be used in a device to help track pets.  HOWEVER, that tech is still being developed in the lab by uber scientists all over the world and not even close to be ready to use by us mere mortals.  The new chip company claimed to be using piezoelectric nanogenerator technology – a crazy cool, brand new tech that has tremendous potential.

Image from PPT created by Tanveer Ahmed Ganganalli

GEEK-OUT MOMENT – let’s talk for just a sec about this tech – the phrase “piezoelectric nanogenerator” literally means a generator that is a less than 100 nanometers small (that’s super-duper-teeny-tiny) that uses a squeezing motion to create electricity — it’s basically a wee device that converts kinetic (movement) energy into electrical energy.  Super cool? Absolutely.  Something that might eventually make its way into a technology to help us keep our furry friends safe? I’d say that’s a good bet…WHEN the technology has been refined and is ready for wider use and applications outside of the science lab. Want to totally nerd out with current news about pieozoelectric tech? Check out this website or read this super cool abstract about the potential applications of the tech or scroll through this nifty slide show (a clip from it is show to the left).  After just browsing a few of the articles on the site, it’s clear…GPS microchips using this technology are still a thing of the future.