Michigan dealer sells small school district on the merits of GPS/AVL
Many land mobile radio dealers today wonder, “What's next?” in terms of sales and business opportunities. With cell phones and digital communications becoming more prevalent, dealers often are forced to search for creative ways to extract additional business from their existing customers. To find the answer, they sometimes must address a need in a market they already are serving.
A dealer in Michigan is mining sales of GPS tracking equipment to school bus systems to which it already is selling radio equipment. Over the years, smaller school districts have thought GPS tracking is too expensive or complicated for its own use. What they now are learning is that they can use their existing radio infrastructure to implement today's low-cost GPS/AVL products into their fleets. The motivation for school districts to adopt GPS technology isn't so much in managing their bus fleets; rather, they are mostly interested in saving money and obtaining critical information that can be provided to parents and school administrators. Lower accident rates, better fuel economy and less idling time are only a few cost savings that such technology can provide.
Electrocomm-Michigan Inc., a two-way dealer in Pontiac, Mich., recently installed a GPS/AVL product into a 50-bus fleet operated by Holly Area Schools in Holly, Mich. Electrocomm used an AVL unit that interfaces to a separate mobile radio to provide all GPS updates and messaging on a stand-alone radio channel. A separate antenna for the radio and GPS receiver was installed for this purpose.
By using a radio other than the mobile radio already installed in the bus — which is used for voice traffic — for the data transmissions, Electrocomm was able to keep the main voice channel clear of data bursts throughout the day. However, this application also can be accomplished using radio systems where the voice channel is shared with the AVL device.
To do this, a feature called queuing is used. This feature stores a pre-set number of GPS position updates and then sends them in a batch, reducing the data transmissions. It has proved popular with districts that cannot afford to add a second radio channel for data, but want to achieve minimal interruption from the data traffic on their voice channel.
Finding places to mount the radio and GPS/AVL hardware is not always an easy task. For many buses, the combination of GPS/AVL unit and mobile radio was mounted in the overhead access panel or behind a dash panel, as available for different bus models (see photo). On newer buses manufactured by International Truck and Engine Corp., they found plenty of room for mounting the mobile radio and the GPS/AVL unit behind the right-side panel on the dash (see photos on page 34).
The wiring to the door switch and warning lights was interfaced directly at the monitor panel. Up to three inputs — which allow monitoring and recording of certain functions or events, such as the front door opening/closing, stop sign out/in, and ignition on/off — can be wired to the GPS/AVL unit, which has the ability to provide GPS updates on-demand” when an input is triggered.
For this application, one input was wired to a switch that indicated whether the front door was open or closed, while a second input was used to report whether the warning lights were active. Recording such events, including the time at which they occurred, can prove to be very useful when a parent calls to find out if the bus stopped at a pick-up point and provides “proof-of-service” to the parent if the child was late to the bus stop.
The school district also benefits from knowing when the bus delivers the students to its schools. In some school districts, if the students arrive early, there may not be teachers there for proper supervision. Of course, if the students arrive late, it affects attendance and interrupts the classroom session.
Back at the bus garage, a second antenna was installed onto the existing tower to provide the same coverage as the voice radios. Again, a dedicated base radio is used with the base modem, which connects to the PC running the mapping software. But Holly schools needed to run the mapping software on several PCs to allow multiple users access to the data. They accomplished this by using a networked version of the software, which lets a single PC connected to the base modem share the incoming data with the other PCs on the network.
“Many districts have found unexpected benefits of GPS in making changes to already scheduled bus routes,” said Richard Pizzi, Electrocomm-Michigan president.
Sometimes the driver cannot complete the route in the scheduled time because of traffic congestion on the road (the 45 mph speed limit is really 20 mph during the morning rush hour).
“Without GPS to record the points, a supervisor would normally ride on the bus in the morning and record all of the information on bus speed, bus stops, delays and so on,” Pizzi said. “Returning to the office, this data would be evaluated, and the route adjusted accordingly. With GPS, the supervisors can look at the latest route data and make a quick decision from their computer.”
With the GPS/AVL product, the supervisor uses only a fraction of the time to gather the required data, compared with riding the bus. There are other benefits as well. Bus drivers often are paid for the time between when they leave and return to the bus garage. Capturing the actual time of departure and arrival can lessen time-card rounding, resulting in reduced labor costs.
In addition, an optional 802.11-based application enables the GPS/AVL device to record, in deep memory, all of the events and GPS updates throughout the school year, data that can be downloaded for later analysis. The application, which automatically downloads the recorded data throughout the day to an access point located in the bus garage/yard, will be available later this year. This product technically does not need a mobile radio to operate and thus can be sold to school districts where cell phones are used for driver communications.
GPS/AVL technology, as used with school bus applications, really is not meant to be a “big brother” monitoring weapon. In fact, a large number of school districts do not live-monitor their buses driving around all day, but rather use the real-time access to poll or interrogate the buses when needed, for example when a student's parent calls to see where the bus is or if it already has passed. The technology also provides a means to reduce costs — by optimizing routes, reducing labor and lowering fuel consumption — and to address issues such as driver performance (e.g., driving under the posted speed limits, leaving the bus garage on time). The recording of stops and warning light usage — as required for railroad crossings and bus stops on highways or heavily traveled roads — can provide crucial data for accident analysis and/or court proceedings.
Paul A. Wardner is the technical sales manager for GPS/AVL system vendor Pyramid Communications. His experience in the LMR industry, spanning more than 20 years, includes data signaling and GPS/AVL as used with commercial radio equipment. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.