GPS/GSM Vehicle Tracker/Recorder

The article below is a detailed description of a GPS and GSM based vehicle tracking solution I have created recently. Its major features:

  • Real time location reports using an onboard GSM modem.
  • Has a micro SD card socket for offline storage on a memory card – this way using a SIM card is optional.
  • Can act as a web server to allow easy and granular customization by the end user.
  • No hefty monthly subscription needed for real time or historical data (i.e. where was X car on the 3rd of last month 10:00-13:00) as I already have my own server running at home that will be happy to dedicate some CPU time to this new job.
  • Contains no 3rd party trackers.
  • All parts of the solution (including the hardware) are open source.

Contents

Introduction

For years I have wanted to get a GPS tracking solution for our car, but I always had more pressing projects to work on. Finally, a few months ago, I returned to this idea (for a nudge by a friend), but a quick look on the internet didn’t come up with any suitable, commercially available product. Any similar product (I found) suffered from one or more of the following issues:

  • You need to purchase a monthly plan from a provider (in addition to the SIM card fees)
  • Does not have an SD card built in for offline storage
  • Involves having to install and use closed source, proprietary apps on your phone and/or computer
  • Not customizable by the end user
  • Battery operated (I admit, this can be easily fixed)

In my mind, any one of the above would render the solution useless. So I decided to create a solution that would have the benefits listed at the top of this article to satisfy all my quirks needs…

This project also provided me a great opportunity to learn new skills as this is my first project that uses an ESP32, a GPS and a GSM modem and an SD card.

The tracker/recorder device

System overview

Here is an overview of the system I came up with. Note, that I took advantage of some components I had already had set up at home. Had I done this from scratch I may have done it a slightly different way. My point being this is NOT the only way to make this solution work. You can, for example, use a different database engine, you could use a virtual (or not) server at a service provider, use HTTP calls rather than MQTT, etc.

The solution I came up with consists of a number of distinct parts:

  • Tracker device: This is the small device that will be put in the vehicle. It will gather and store location data on an SD card as well as send the same to a central server over a GSM connection.
  • Server: An MQTT server is needed to receive the location data and allow real time viewing of the vehicle tracked.
  • Real time view: On PC, I will use my existing Home Assistant installation to show the current location of the cars tracked. On mobile I use NextTracks to view the same thing. (NextTracks for Android is an OwnTracks fork, that doesnโ€™t use Google Play Services and does not contain trackers/ads.)
  • Historical view: I use Grafana to display a map customized with all tracklogs of a given period of time.

In the rest of the article I will focus on the actual tracker device, but will give enough insight on the other parts as well if one wishes to create a similar system. If enough people request more details on the other parts I might make a detailed guide for the whole back end in the future, so get commenting! ๐Ÿ™‚

GPS tracker

Hardware

Power supply

Obviously, the device will work from the 12V DC supply in the car (or 24V DC in a some buses/trucks). For polarity protection I added a 1N400x diode. According to its datasheet, it can provide 1A in continuous drive and can handle up to 30A for a few milliseconds. I only need a bit more than 2A at peak.

From the datasheet of the 1N400x diode

The GSM module requires a supply of 3.4V-4.4V. This range is pretty much out of the ordinary. The best way I found to produce this voltage is using a dedicated DC-DC converter (or Buck converter) that steps down the voltage from the car battery voltage to 4.2V. These cheap Buck converters have high efficiency (i.e. don’t heat up much as a linear voltage regulator) and come handy in similar projects. In fact, in this one I use two of them: one to power the GSM module, and one to provide 5V for the rest of the circuit.

From the datasheet of the MP2307 buck conveter

I also use an LDO to further step down the 5V to 3.3V for the ESP32, the SD card and the GPS. I could have skipped this and have the second Buck converter step down voltage directly to 3.3V, but I decided to have both 5V and 3.3V on the PCB so that in the future I can swap the GPS or the modem for a model that uses a different voltage. Then, all I have to do is adjust the output of that Buck converter.

GPS module

The major driver in selecting the GPS module was its price and size. Since most, if not all, modern GPS modules work the same way, use the same algorithms to do their internal calculations, there is not really much difference between them. I am now talking about “ordinary” consumer grade GPS modules, that provide the location data via a serial line at 1 Hz or slower. I understand there are units that can provide you with the location data several times per second, but in a ground based vehicle that level of precision is not needed, so the extra cost is not justified.

After looking at a few reasonably priced GPS modules online I also tried out a few different ones and finally decided to use a tiny module labeled NEO-6M GPS based on a NEO-M8N-0-10 chip in this project. The whole module is about 24mm*36mm and comes with a short ceramic antenna. It is so sensitive that even inside my house, although close to the window, it was able to get a fix easily. My PCB design allows the use of any similar GPS module through a header dedicated to a GPS module

According to its datasheet, it requires 3V to 5V to operate. In my circuit it happily operates from the same 3.3V as the ESP32, eliminating the need for a level shifter. It is important to provide the GPS with enough power, otherwise it will not get a fix, and instead of location data, it will output only something like this:

When properly powered, the GPS spits out NMEA compatible GPS sentences once per second @ 9600baud, by default. This can be changed, but I left it untouched – it’s fine for my purposes. This is a sample output of a generic GPS module (I have changed the coordinates to random ones…):

Also, it has a 1Hz square wave output, which I have no use of, but could come handy in other projects.

GSM module

For real time communication with the tracker I chose a tiny GSM module based on Simcom’s SIM800L. I picked this module because of its size, simplicity of use and price. For under โ‚ฌ4 I get a fully featured GSM modem module with antenna. True, it works only on 2G networks, but in Europe (where I intend to use it) 2G networks are promised to run at least for a few more years because of the vast number of existing IoT devices.

Also, my PCB design allows for using any GSM module (3.3V or 5V) through a dedicated header as long as it can be also controlled by AT commands.

The modem can be programmed easily via a serial line using standard AT commands. During my experiments I found out, however, that this modem is very demanding in terms of power supply: According to its datasheet, during transmit busts it consumes 2A (!) peak, so its power supply should be able to handle that load. After a lot of experimentation I found that I could achieve reliable operation with a dedicated Buck converter that steps down voltage from the 12V available in the car to the optimal supply of the SIM800L, which is 4.2V. (I have tested the module with supply voltages covering the whole range specified in the datasheet (3.4V-4.4V))

Sample output of the SIM800L module using the TinyGSM+ library:

Output of HttpClient example of the same library:

CPU

When I started out on this project, I planned on using the good-old ESP8266 to be the brain of the operations. Unfortunately, quickly it turned out this project required some extra peripherals that the ESP8266 did not have. So I turned to the more recent ESP32, which has so much more power and has more peripherals than its predecessor, that most of them now is not even used. Anyway, it also presented me an opportunity to learn how to use a new micro controller.

First in the learning process I created a development board that made my life a lot easier. The USB development boards available on commercially are, in my mind, too dangerous to mess around with: one wrong move and, the best case, they can render your USB port dead, or the worst case, they can see your computer dead… I know from experience that I make mistakes occasionally, so ruining an expensive computer is not a question of “if” for me, but a question of “when”.

ESP32 development board. It contains:

  • 3.3V power supply form an external 5V supply
  • Reset/programming circuitry
  • All GPIOs broken out to easily accessible pin headers
  • LED indicators (one for power, one custom, connected to GPIO2)

For more of my development boards see my previous article.

Putting it all together

Here is the schematics of the final GPS logger:

As you can see, I also added an 8bit I2C IO expander and 8 LEDs to give some real time indication as to what is going on in the device when not attached to a debugger. In the prototype this will be useful, but in the production pieces I will simply not solder them on the PCB, since they are not needed during the day-to-day operation.

Naturally, I first put the whole circuit together on a breadboard, and only when I was satisfied that all components and features were working properly, I went on designing a custom PCB.

A word about the sponsor of this PCB: Although it would be possible to make this PCB at home, I opted for a professionally made one by PCBWay. I have used them in the past with success and I knew that the PCBs I order would turn out great. The ordering process was smooth, and within 24 hours of ordering, the finished PCBs were handed over to the post. The PCBs arrived in perfect condition, with plenty of protection around them. The soldering pads were all clean and soldering was a breeze, no cleaning of the PCBs first was necessary. I also found out to my surprise, that even though I ordered 10 PCBs, I got 11 in the box. Way to go, PCBWay! If you also want your own tracking device PCB professionally manufactured, click on the picture to the left and order your PCBs today!

Those parts that came in fully assembled modules were mounted on header pins, like daughter boards on a motherboard. This way I saved a lot of space on the actual PCB as I could place SMD parts under those big modules. Thus, the full size of the PCB was defined largely by these prefabricated modules.

While I was designing the PCB several times I printed the design on a piece of paper and “fake” populated it with the major parts. I did this as I had no previous experience with the major parts of the design and wanted to make sure everything was in place.

All this to fit in a 100mm*60mm AB case found on eBay.

Firmware

I created a custom firmware for this tracker around the ESP32 chip. The firmware is fully open source and is available at my Github repository. I wrote the firmware using the Arduino framework for the ESP32 using the following additional open source libraries (in no particular order):

  • ArduinoJson
  • PubSubClient
  • TimeLib
  • Ticker
  • Timezone
  • PCF8574_ESP
  • EspSoftwareSerial
  • TinyGPSPlus
  • TinyGSM
  • StreamDebugger
  • ArduinoHttpClient

All of them are excellent libraries without which development would have taken a lot longer. A huge thanks to all the open source creators!

My development environment is Visual Studio Code with PlatformIO on a 64 bit Windows 10 Professional system.

Operation

Before powering up the device a SIM card and an SD card need to be inserted. The SIM card is required for communication between the tracker and the server that collates the data sent from it. The SD card is needed to store location history locally, on the tracker. Both cards are optional, but at least one should be inserted, otherwise there is not much point using the device, although it will work.

Normal operation/Logging mode

Once powered up, after some initial self test, during a normal startup, the tracker will enter Logging mode, which means, that the GPS starts to get a location fix, and sets the system time from the GPS. In my experience, the GPS modules I tried get a fix within a minute, sometimes in a few seconds, depending on the time it has spent powered down. Once this is done, it starts logging location data to the SD card and to the server at user defined intervals. Also, at some other predefined interval, the tracker sends a “heartbeat” message to the server which contains basic diagnostics data about the device itself. The following is a typical example of such a message:

The user has the option to remotely control certain aspects of the tracker using specially formulated MQTT messages. Here is a sample command message:

The tracker will reply with something like this:

The same way most of the settings of the tracker can also be changed remotely.

The location reports use the location format of Owntracks/NextTracks:

Using the Owntracks/NextTracks format allows me to use their free app on Android to view the vehicle(s) on the map. I prefer NextTracks as it doesn’t need to have Google Play Services in stalled on the phone.

Setup/Wifi mode

To enter Setup mode, just after powering up (but not before power is applied), the Program/Mode button must be held down for a few seconds. This signals the device during system boot to enter Setup mode. Also, if a normal boot fails a predefined number of times, the tracker will automatically enter Setup mode without user intervention.

Once in Setup mode, the tracker tries to establish a wireless connection with the last used WiFi network. If it cannot, it creates its own network. Either way, the user can now connect to it and set up the required parameters (like the MQTT server address, or logging interval) for normal operation. All user configurable settings are available through this built in web interface.

Sample of the settings page

Backend

The server side of this solution takes care of receiving and storing any data received from the tracker. These are the back end components:

MQTT server

Strictly speaking, this is the only server side component that is critical. If we have this, then we can already see real time data coming from the tracker using, say NextTracks. It will not show us any historical data, but it has a nice user interface to show current location data for any number of vehicles.

In my setup I use Mosquitto as the MQTT server. I have written about installing it earlier.

Database

If we want to have historical data as well, we need to use a database to store the incoming location data. For this purpose I use InfluxDB, which I already have on my server for other projects.

Home Assistant

I also operate a Home Assistant instance on my server at home. It takes care of the usual home automation tasks, and as a bonus, its Owntracks integration implicitly uses InfluxDB to store all incoming data from the various sensors, my tracker’s location data is just one set of the many. So I literally had to do NOTHING to store location data.

Recently, I wrote about how to install and get started with Home Assistant, so I will not go into it here.

Grafana

Grafana is an excellent tool for displaying metrics, logs, etc in a beautiful and customizable web front-end. I have been using it for quite some time, and I just love the way my data looks every time I create something new. ๐Ÿ™‚ It really is beautiful!

Sample section of a quick trip I took the other day. On the live site (where I took this screenshot from) the track is moving slowly, so I can even see the direction of the car.

Trackmap Panel for Grafana is an open source plugin that allows displaying (historical) location data on a map.

Optional custom components

At the moment I don’t have any other custom component for this setup. This may change in the future if I find that Grafana’s or Nexttracks’ capabilities are not adequate. In this case I am likely to have to develop some custom components myself.

In my setup, at the time of writing this article, all the above back end components are performed by a single (very old) computer running Ubuntu Server.

Frontend

Mobile apps Owntracks/Nexttracks are ideal for getting a quick look at where the monitored vehicles are at a glance. If we want to get a more detailed view of how the monitored vehicles are doing any modern browser visiting the Grafana report will do the job. There one can see the path a given vehicle has taken in the past.

Security

By leaving this section to the end I certainly do not want to suggest that it is any less important. In fact, I think it is so important that I am going to dedicate a whole article just to that in the near future. Until then, happy tracking!

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