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<nettime> "kidnapped kids"

New technology may one day help track kidnapped kids

April 25, 1999
Web posted at: 1:11 PM EDT (1711 GMT)

ANDERSON, South Carolina (AP) -- Dave Smith stares at a computer screen as
a satellite map of North America telescopes down to a grid of a major city
and, finally, to a single neighborhood with green space and railroad tracks.

He clicks a mouse. A dial tone sounds, followed by the screech of a modem.
Suddenly a little panda icon with a red bow tie appears at the intersection
of Linwood Drive and Warren Road. A few seconds later, amid more tones and
screeches, the panda lurches to another spot on the map.

"He's out on the highway now," says Smith, a former Defense Department
computer programmer. "We're within 100 yards of that right now -- well
within visual range."

Smith, now a private computer consultant, has just accessed a global
positioning satellite unit, or GPS, in Canada. But he's not tracking a
stolen car. He's hunting down a kidnapped child -- or, rather, a software
engineer in Toronto posing as one for this test.

All from a tiny office in South Carolina peach country. All because a pair
of businessmen-grandfathers decided that if you can track a stolen car, you
should be able to track a stolen child.

"You can replace an automobile," says Bill Brown, who along with Dan Booker
founded Protect Me Toys last year. "You can't replace a child."

Their plan is to eventually give away the devices.

"We're not Bill Gates, but we live comfortably," says Booker, 50, who with
Brown struck it rich selling prepaid telephone calling cards and drives a
gleaming white Rolls-Royce to his Anderson office.

The pair have spent about $250,000 of their own money to develop a system
that can be hidden in the bottom of a backpack or in an unobtrusive fanny
pack. Now they're looking for investors to help bring their plan to

The idea developed a few years ago when Brown's son was divorced and Brown
became concerned for the safety of his 3-year-old granddaughter. He says he
went shopping for something that could help him keep track of her, but
found nothing.

The technology was focused on recovering cars. Brown, 48, says he was told
that kids could be tracked only "when a child was capable of wearing a
40-pound battery."

There are more than 600,000 abduction attempts on children each year,
according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Each
day, 2,300 children are reported missing and entered into the FBI's
computer system.

The two friends kept searching and eventually found Canadian Marconi Co.,
which was selling GPS units to do everything from tracking bulls on the
loose to telling golfers how far they hit a ball.

"It's unbelievable ... the different calls that you would get for weird
applications," says Hubert Pellerin, product manager for Marconi's GPS
group. "But this one was a really nice one. Because I have three kids,

Marconi took a GPS card that it developed for Boeing 777s and made it more
sensitive. It's about the size of a business card and weighs less than an

Pellerin combined the card with a cellular phone receiver and antenna. He
added a layer of aluminum shielding to keep the components from interfering
with each other. The entire package weighs around 1 1/2 pounds.

The SatCel unit basically "sleeps" until it is called by the tracking
center, so the 870-hour standby battery doesn't run down unnecessarily.
There's no ringing when it is contacted, so as not to tip off a kidnapper.

The signal can be reached anywhere that has cell phone coverage, and is
strong enough to be detected from the trunk of a car. The GPS cannot be
reached from inside a building, but its memory can play back its last 100

Booker and Brown expect the unit to cost about $200, with a monthly
activation fee of as little as $5.

This year, they tested the device with a juvenile justice agency and the
Anderson Police, using Booker's 5-year-old granddaughter as the abductee
and her father as the kidnapper. Officials say it worked splendidly.

The first five units have been sent to Child Search, a Houston-based
nonprofit group that hunts missing children, to be given to five children
considered most at risk.

Dr. Brandon Ward, operations officer of Child Search, says the concept has
been discussed for years. "These are the first guys who've put their money
where their mouth is," says Ward, whose group helped find more than 500
missing children last year.

Smith, a consultant on the project, says its possibilities are numerous.
People could use the device to track a grandparent with Alzheimer's
disease, hikers, wayward teen-agers -- even the school bus your child is

The device now is about the size of a box of animal crackers, but work is
under way to make it smaller, stronger and more accurate. Fugawi Software,
the Toronto firm that did the mapping, is developing a tracking system that
can be run on a home computer.

Brown envisions the day when a GPS unit can be sewn into a child's jacket
or tucked into a shoe.

"The predators," he says, "are going to watch TV and say, 'It ain't like it
used to be. We can't just snatch anybody we want to."'

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