By Tom Shelley

Last month’s ‘appeal’ to identify technologies that could prevent child abduction has moved forward rapidly

In a letter published last month, prompted by the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, design engineer Peter Fitzsimmons challenged Eureka readers to come up with a device to track lost children. Several readers have written with suggestions — two RFID-based ideas, one of which is in production, are highlighted here.
At the same time, two competing satellite-based systems — one British, one French — have also been launched recently.
Maidstone-based Blue Tree Services launched its OurKids child tracking system in the UK and Ireland earlier this year. The device comes in two parts: children wear the Blueranger unit, supplied with a belt similar to a money belt or with a pocket that can be attached to any item. Parents track their child’s movements through BlueMap software either on the internet or via a hand-held PDA. The latter shows its location as well as that of the monitored units.
The portable units use GPS and the cell phone network to send positioning information — accurate within 4m — to secure servers. These then relay information, which shows the unit location within the UK or Europe.
The company says: “Although it has been possible for people to carry alarms for some time, these were either linked to a physical location or allowed for only single location requests. With OurKids, continuous tracking avoids the problems associated with not having a ‘position fix’ at critical moments — there is always a ‘breadcrumb trail’.”
The units incorporate a movement sensor, which detects whether it is being worn —and not left in backpack at a friend’s house — or if it has suffered a shock such as a fall.
Parents can also set up boundaries through GPS mapping. The system alerts them if the child moves beyond a predetermined area. Height can also be set as a parameter — perhaps to ensure the child isn’t taking part in a dangerous Quidditch match? Other features include an emergency alarm, which lets children tell parents if they are in trouble.
Managing director Mike Smuts said: “We have seen a huge demand for this product from across all sectors of society. This is a robust and easy to wear product. It’s good to know that parents can allow their children a little more freedom and at the same time manage their independence.”
French firm Car Telematics has a long waiting list for its Kiditel device according to the BBC. It will be released in the UK soon, and can be put in a pocket or bag. The GPS tracking device beams satellite images of a child’s location to the home computer. It has an SOS button, which sends an SMS and position coordinates to a predefined mobile number if the child is in trouble. A parent can call the child back to find out what the problem is.
Development director Franck Spinelli told the BBC that the Kiditel was popular with parents of young children.
Neither of these devices would prevent a kidnapping, and there would be nothing to stop the abductor disposing of the device once found on the child. However, both systems could give police vital information on the child’s whereabouts before he or she went missing.
Reader Paul Clarke proposed an RFID solution, which could overcome these difficulties. Citing the current level of integration of CCTV systems, he says: “If there was a similar initiative to link the RFID systems used by shops to catch shoplifters, it would be possible to search for an RFID tag that could be surgically implanted under a child’s skin or inserted into the fabric of their clothing.
“Potentially this could be an international initiative that would mean that if an abductor attempted to take a chipped child into a store that subscribed to the service, store detectives would be notified and by cross-referencing with CCTV footage one could determine the identity of the individual [abducting a child].”
Surgically implanting an RFID chip under a child’s skin seems a little Orwellian, though putting it into the fabric of clothes seems more acceptable. Are parents likely to go to such extremes to ensure kids are safe, or is it a step too far?
However, as reader Roger Bamford pointed out, one US firm has already designed a human-implantable RFID chip. VeriChip has developed a passive RFID microchip, inserted under the skin by injection, which contains a unique 16-digit identifier. The number on the chip — which can be read with a proprietary scanner — could be used to access medical records, or determine whether someone has the authority to enter a secure area, the company says.
Verichip has also designed wearable active RFID chips, designed for use within care homes or hospital wards. The chips sound an alarm if patients — for instance, those with Alzheimer’s — leave a designated area. It can even lock an exit as a patient approaches it. The chips can also be used to prevent the abduction of newborns by raising the alarm if the baby is removed from the ward.