A Simple, DIY GPS Tracker

Today, there are dozens of off-the-shelf solutions for a GPS tracking device. Most of them use GSM, some of them use satellites, and all of them are astonishingly inexpensive. If you want to track a car, dog, or your luggage, you’ve never had more options.

[Emilio] wanted to track his own car, and the original solution for this was a smartphone. This smartphone was also a good choice, as it’s a programmable GPS device connected to a cell network, but there had to be a simpler solution. It came in the form of an eight euro GPS module and a three euro GSM module (Google Translatrix right here). The rest of the hardware is an ATMega48V [Emilio] had sitting around and a 2500 mAh lithium cell. It’s a cellular tracker make out of eleven euro’s worth of hardware and some junk in a drawer.

There are only a few caveats to this hardware. First, the ATmega48V only has one UART. This is connected to the GPS module at 9600, 8N1. The connection to the GSM M-590 module is only 2400 bps, and slow enough for a bitbanged UART. This hardware is soldered to a piece of perfboard, thus ending the hardware part of this build.

The software is a little more complex, but not by very much. The GPS part of the firmware records the current latitude and longitude. If the GSM module receives a call, it replies with an SMS of the current GPS coordinates and a few GPS coordinates seen earlier. Of course, a pre-paid SIM is required for this build, but those are cheap enough.

Not even ten years ago, a simple, DIY GPS tracker would have cost a small fortune. Now that we have cheap GPS modules, GSM modules, and more magical electronics from the East, builds like this are easy and cheap. What a magical time to be alive.

22 thoughts on “A Simple, DIY GPS Tracker

  1. Quite ugly tracker. Do it just for education.
    Hackaday….check APRS trackers, more mature and educative.

    For $20 You can buy a good GSM tracker from Ali..

    Most important part in automotive electronic devices is power supply.
    Temperatures range from -35 to +100 C.
    It must survive for at least 5 years (service costs more than device).
    And power in car is not stabilized well.

  2. I was also thinking how can I build such tracker and then I realized it’s a waste of time. You can use some old Android phone and just write software to send data to your server.

    1. This. Low end Android smartphone also cost less than 30€, and can use Google tracking.
      Just configure the account and you can see it in Google location manager.
      Add a 12v plug usb power adapter and you get a tracker for the car, which does also as an assistant with Google now.

  3. These stories make it sound as if these devices are one time sunk cost purchases. This is not the case when you have to pay the network operator to communicate the data for use. I suppose a “burner phone” could be used, but either way, you’re going to pay the cellular network operator their bill to let you send that data back and forth.

    1. Exactly! Who cares if the sunk cost is below the monthly cost of service, that is nearly meaningless. Somebody who can only afford $10 for a tracker still can’t use this one.

      If “cheap” is one of the advantages of the design, it would need to use APRS or something else that doesn’t require an extra cell phone data account.

      The advantage would have to actually be the added security of a custom system, where off-the-shelf attacks would fail so it would take a knowledgeable and dedicated attacker to break in.

      1. For mine I’m using Freedompop, which once you disable the recurring monthly fees & pay $5 so they don’t charge you if you unintentionally go over, is freeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. :)

    2. That depends upon whether or not your application requires real-time update. If you just want to know where the car has been, you can wait until it returns home and uploads the data onto your own WiFi network.

  4. Years ago I made an aprs tracker in a backpack.

    Motorola encore GPS
    Tiny track programmed pic chip driving a 2m amature radio.

    Cable tied the bits to piece of cardboard cut to fit a back pack.

    Used it with a scout group the kids had heaps of fun tracking each other around.

  5. Years ago, I took a simple obsolete cell phone someone gave me, added 10 dollars worth of minutes, installed some Java script software that sent the info via text message to a website that used Google’s maps for tracking (for free). Add in a 4 dollar power supply (12v to whatever voltage, connection the phone needed) and was able to track my vehicle anywhere, anytime. I could see a history plus the vehicles speed during that time. If not for google, I would still be using that option. I think it’s sad that something that could be done with a few bucks and obsolete crap cannot be done today or the crap that is being built/so!d today doesn’t even come close to what that little phone and 10 dollars a month could do.

      1. My project (which is 1/3 done) involves an Android phone running ownTracks and it connects to a MQTT server (CloudMQTT.com) to update when it moves around. Just finished programming it.. now I’m going to walk around and see if ti works! :)

  6. I’d prefer a custom tracker over a $20 chinese gadget because :
    – Counterfeitors are not looking for such kind of thing, mounted accordingly it is just something one will not expect to find;
    – It gives you extra authority points when it comes to “show and tell”;
    – It gives you knowledgement and experience.
    – It is pure fun to build and develop!

  7. Check out APRS.FI, there’s plenty of amateur radio tracking along with boats etc.
    As a ham operator myself, it’s a fun thing to play with, but once the novelty wears off, it’s just another thing.
    Yes it’s fun to track yourself on that summer vacation etc. but I just don’t want to be tracked all the time.
    I have an older model GPSMap 76CS that I use when I ride a bike so I can see the track later when I get home.
    I mean, do you really want to advertise to the world you’re in Texas when your house is in Wyoming?
    Hmmm this ham is hundreds of miles away, hmmm maybe no one home? Nice way to case a joint. :)

    1. The whole point on APRS is : you must have a HAM license for that…aside the fact that the hardware is far from inexpensive if you’re planning to set up a gateway as part of the project.

  8. So everybody mentioning APRS… Realize that there are certain issues there: you have to be a licensed amateur, there are restrictions on automatic stations, and there are restrictions on purposes for which you can use it (in other words, not for pay or for business purposes).

    While this guy did a good job making use of what he had, I will mention that it’s not at all hard to find alternative controllers with multiple UARTs. My current go-to for that is the ATMega328PB on the low end.

  9. Trackers used in theft protection need a way to report their position. And TelCo’s know it, so either you get a M2M SIM card (hard for a private person, on a single-SIM basis) or you end up paying a monthly fee for voice/SMS/data traffic that hopefully will never be used. A more modern approach could be to use a LoRA transmitter (if LoRaWAN coverage will ever reach a decent level) or pay the SIGFOX subscription (better coverage, but depends on the Country you’re in).

    Then, I remember reading on HaD of a tracker jumping on open WiFi networks and reporting its position using DNS queries. Looks like 5% of WiFi networks are still open: probably better coverage than LoRA!

    In any case congratulations to Emilio for implementing his DIY tracker.

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