Spies and sensors everywhere

Smaller than a penny, this receiver-transmitter identifies lost animals. a
attribution Courtesy Destron Fearing, Inc.

  Lost kid? Lost dog? Lost truck? Trust technology to bring them home.
Modern surveillance equipment is not just a matter of spy satellites and airplanes. Trucking companies, railroads and car fleets all use global positioning satellite (GPS) technology to trace their fleets. Cadillac has introduced the "OnStar" satellite service that offers road directions and emergency road service. Baffled, boggled, and bewildered? It'll even make your restaurant reservations.

Marrying parental paranoia with GPS technology, Olivetti has begun marketing the "tot tracker," a device that, when placed in your kid's backpack, tells you if junior has strayed across the street -- or across the planet. For an excellent wrap-up of high-technology tracking and surveillance business, see "No Place to Hide" in the bibliography.

Many of the most pervasive tracking technologies use radio waves to activate a device that beeps back an identifying signal. These so-called "transponders" enable toll booths to identify moving cars so drivers' accounts can be debited. Transponders work in identification bracelets to identify and control stalkers and prisoners under house arrest.

Honey: they shrank the transponder
It may also be found in your dog's scruff, courtesy of Destron Fearing, a Minnesota firm that wants to give every dog its own serial number. And every pig, and migrating salmon, and cow and...

I'm missing something. Salmon need serial numbers? Indeed. Fishery managers use them to count how many salmon are successfully passing the hydroelectric dams. It sounds trivial, but these dams have slashed salmon populations in the U.S. Northwest.

And pigs? Because large livestock farms need to keep track of their animals, says Thomas Ahmann, vice-president for finance at Destron. Ahmann notes that transponders have no batteries, no moving parts, and can be as small as a grain of rice.

Here's how it works: A transponder, containing a microchip with a unique, coded ID number, is injected between the shoulder blades or in another innocuous place, using a gizmo resembling a fat hypodermic needle. Constructed of sterile glass, the transponder is just 2 millimeters in diameter (about the diameter of a grain of rice); it causes neither irritation nor infection.

The transponder just bides its time until it's exposed to the radio field emitted by Destron's hand-held identifying device. When this gadget is within a few inches of the chip, its radio field activates the antenna, energizing the microchip and causing it to say "Here's number 1B238987E48," or something equally fascinating.

But that would be enough to help a rancher finger a rustled steer, or an animal pound identify a lost dog. Electronic pet identification is already quite common in Europe, Ahmann notes.

In the future, Ahmann predicts the gizmos could become part of a sophisticated animal-management system allowing farmers to individually feed each animal in a herd.

At present, however, the technology is essentially a replacement for good, ol' ear tags. "When large quantities of animals are being moved, they have to do a manual count and record ear tag numbers," says Ahmann. And since swine have, well, swinish habits, their tags can get gummed up with, er, manure. But since radio waves go right through hog slop, transponders have advantages over manual counting.

And you guessed this one -- the information can be fed directly from the scanner into a computer. "Electronics offers tremendous savings in inventory control," Ahmann says. "That's what's gotten [large farmers] so excited."

Surveil the sleuths who put this article together.

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