Astra vehicle tracking FAQs: Answers to frequently asked questions

Q. What are GPS and GNSS?

A. GPS (Global Positioning System) is a network of 24 satellites which are used to determine time, location, speed and heading very precisely. Other similar systems, such as GLONASS, GALILEO and BeiDou, can also be used to provide the same data, globally and free of charge. Collectively, these systems are now referred to as GNSS or Global Navigation Satellite Systems. Signals from the GNSS satellites are very weak and therefore will not usually travel through metal or buildings etc. In most circumstances, GNSS devices only work outdoors.

Q. What is GPRS?

A. The General Packet Radio Service is the original solution to connect devices to the internet over GSM networks. It’s launch, back in the year 2000, was fundamental to the growth of the telematics industry, as it allowed data to be sent in real-time, very cost effectively. For consumer handset applications, GPRS has been superceded by 3G and 4G of course, although uptake of those services to telematics applications has been slow, due to the reletively high size and cost of 3G/4G modules, compared with those that support only GPRS. A few network operators have announced the end of their GPRS services (2017), although it seems that the majority will continue to operate GPRS services for many years to come, partly due to the millions of telematics (fashionably referred to as IoT these days) devices which are deployed and operating on GPRS only.

Q. Should we be buying 3G/4G devices?

A. In some territories, clearly there is no option to continue using GPRS beyond 2017, Australia and Singapore for example. In many other territories, GPRS is expected to continue until at least 2020 and possibly until 2025. In fact, it looks very likely that in the UK and other EU countries, GPRS services will outlive 3G! So, for a truly future-proof device, 4G should be the goal. Unfortunately, 4G modules are still very much larger and more expensive than GPRS or 3G modules (approx. a factor of 8 at time of writing), which makes them impractical and uneconomical for everyday telematics applications.  A reletively new option for IoT applications in Europe is LPWAN, which is a generic term that includes both NB-IoT and LTE Cat M1.  These networks are ideal for IoT applications, with low cost, low-power and small dimensions.  LPWAN module availability is currently quite limited, but during 2019/2020, we expect to see modules which support both GPRS and LPWAN networks, and these will almost certainly be the right choice for future-proof IoT devices in applications which do not require large amounts of data (all except video).  Our advanced devices (AT240 and AT110) support 3G (with GPRS fall-back) and we anticipate releasing products with LPWAN support in 20120 subject to price and availability of modules.

Q. Where do our devices work?

A. Our devices work anywhere in the world, subject to suitable GPRS/3G network services.

Q. What warranty is provided with Astra devices?

A. All our devices are supplied with an industry-leading 5 year warranty.

Q. How can I update device firmware?

A. All our devices support a fast a simple method to update firmware remotely, which can be done by sending a simple command to the device by SMS or TCP. The process is safe, reliable and fast, usually complete in less than 5 minutes. We provide free firmware updates with all our devices.

Q. What about driver ID?

A. All of our devices support driver ID using iButtons (Dallas Keys) or RFID/NFC ID cards. Some of our devices also support bluetooth based driver ID. Please refer to individual device data sheets or our product feature comparison matrix for details.

Q. What about driver behaviour?

A. All of our devices support driver behaviour, including:
fuel consumption (CANBus devices only)

Q. What is OBD (J1979)?

A. OBD or On Board Diagnostics defines a standard format to access vehicle diagnostic data for cars and light commercial vehicles (vans). For the past 10 years or so, it has been mandatory for vehicle manufacturers to provide an OBD port which conforms to the J1979 standard. The standard defines the connector type and pinout, along with a set of diagnostic commands which can be used to query the vehicle data. Unfortunately, the standard does not include fuel consumption data. Fuel level data is included, but it is optional and many manufacturers choose not to provide it. Astra Telematics devices support the OBD standard (CANBus compatible devices, such as the AT240 and AT110) and where fuel level is available, our devices estimate fuel consumption based on fuel level and journey distance. Note that this data is estimated and will differ from the fuel consumption figure displayed on the vehicle dashboard display. Also note that OBD requires read/write access to the CANBus and therefore contactless CAN adapters, such as our CC001 cannot be used, as they allow read-only access.

Q. What is CANBus and how can it be used with Astra Telematics devices?

A. A CANBus is the generic name given to the communication networks used in vehicles to interconnect the ECU with sensors, actuators, controls and the dashboard display, amongst other things. The CANBus network typically contains some data that is of interest to fleet managers, such as fuel consumption. Unfortunately, the data is formatted by each vehicle manufacturer using proprietary, non-standard protocols. Furthermore, the manufacturers do not often share those protocols, making it very difficult for us to access the data we are interested in. Fortunately, there are some standards in the industry that can help us, namely OBD (J1979) and FMS (J1939)

Q. What is a contactless CANBus adapter and why are they useful?

A. Contactless CANBus adapters, such as our CC001, are used to read data from the vehicle CANBus without an electrical contact. The contactless adapter simply clips over the insulated CANBus wires, avoiding potential issues with interference or warranty liabilities etc. Note that contactless CANBus adapters allow read-only functions and therefore cannot be used for OBD applications, which require read/write access to the CANBus.

Q. What is FMS (J1939)?

A. FMS or Fleet Management System is a standard protocol supported by a group of HGV manufacturers to provide useful vehicle data for 3rd party devices in a safe way, without risk of interfering with the vehicle’s systems. The data format is standardised across all supporting manufacturers and the standard is openly available, so that companies such as Astra Telematics can read and use the data. Furthermore, the FMS standard includes fuel consumption data, along with a wealth of other stuff that is potentially useful for fleet managers. FMS is not universally available on all vehicles manufactured, even by those that are involved in the standard. FMS is often a manufacturer option, although recently it appears to be available on the majority of new HGVs supplied.

Q. Can we get fuel consumption data without FMS?

A. Vehicles without FMS will require the use of a 3rd party gateway device to convert the manufacturer proprietary vehicle data to FMS standard, so that it can be read by our devices. We can advise on compatability and selection of an FMS gateway device. Please send us the vehicle manufacturer, model and year, for advice on availability of compatible FMS getway devices.

Q. What is an ASP and why do I need one?

A. Our devices send data, such as location and status of a remote vehicle, to a computer server, over the internet. An ASP or Application Service Provider allows you to use that data for your chosen application in a user-friendly format, to view maps, reports and alerts etc. Astra Telematics are a supplier of devices only. Many of our clients have their own ASP solution, and some use those provided by 3rd party ASPs on a pay-per-vehicle basis. Click here for a list of ASPs that support our devices

Q. Should I use an existing ASP or develop my own solution?

A. That depends on the number of devices that you expect to deploy and the resources that you have available for development and support. Few fleets have sufficient numbers of vehicles to justify the development and support costs of running your own ASP service. The break-even figure depends on many factors, but we would suggest it is in the region of 1000s of vehicles/devices, rather than 100s. Development time should be considered in the region of 6 to 9 months at least, although this can be reduced by starting with an open source solution such as openGTS, those solutions are quite basic and may require significant additional development to meet your requirements.

Q. Can I access my fleet management data when away from the office?

A. Almost all of our supporting Application Service Providers (ASPs) require only an internet browser to use their systems. In this case, there is no need to download or install any software at all. Many also provide mobile applications which can be used from smartphones.

Q. Will the system cause excessive drain on my vehicle battery?

A. Vehicles can typically be left stationary for many weeks with the system fully active and without any battery problems. For motorcycles and vehicles which may be parked for longer periods (more than 2 weeks), we recommend the use of low-power mode with our devices. Please refer to our Low Power Mode Application Note for more details.

Q. Can these tracking devices be moved from one vehicle to another?

A. Yes, this is usually no problem, due to the tiny dimensions of our devices.

Q. Will these devices work in my trailers and other assets without a power source?

A. All our devices are designed to operate from a permanent external voltage source, typically by connection to the vehicle fusebox or battery. All our devices have internal back-up batteries to allow short-term autonomous operation in the event of a power failure (potentially caused by tampering, blown fuse or vehicle/battery fault). Currently, we do not offer a device for long term autonomous operation from internal battery, without external power connection, although we plan to release such a device later this year (2017)

Q. What happens to our data when the device is out of 3G/GPRS coverage or when our server/ASP is offline?

All our devices have non-volatile storage for 1000s of reports, to ensure that no data is lost during communications outages.  All reports are stored until they are successfully sent to the host server and the device receives an acknowledgment.  In a typical application, the storage allows at least 7 days of storage until the oldest data starts to be overwritten (FIFO style).

Q. Where can I find out more about using Astra Telematics products?

A. New Application Service Providers should contact Astra Telematics directly. End users requiring a complete vehicle tracking solution should choose from the list of available Application Service Providers (ASPs) and contact them directly for further details and a demonstration.

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