Title:
Automated snow removal tracking system
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
Embodiments of the invention provide a tracking system for a snow removal remote unit and crew. The tracking system of the invention is configured to interface with a GPS system to determine the location of a remote unit, and more particularly, to determine if the remote unit is operating at a removal location. If the removal unit is operating at a removal location, the tracking system of the invention is configured to track the time expended at the removal location conducting removal operations. Once the removal operations are completed at the removal location, the tracking system of the invention is configured to transmit the tracking data to a base location where the information may be used for accounting, billing, invoicing, and/or scheduling operations via transmission or interfacing of the data to other software processes configured to conduct these processes.



Inventors:
Summer, Stephen David (Langhorne, PA, US)
Application Number:
11/446873
Publication Date:
12/06/2007
Filing Date:
06/05/2006
Primary Class:
International Classes:
E01H5/04
View Patent Images:
Related US Applications:
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20090293320SNOW BLOWER WITH EDGE BLADESDecember, 2009Cummings
20080307680Snow Block Forming & Transportation Device & Method of Use ThereofDecember, 2008Schlichting
20090013564Snow plowJanuary, 2009Mallaridas
20070214686Versatile powered linear drive utility machineSeptember, 2007Shai
20080209771Chute rotation system and method of operating sameSeptember, 2008Jerger et al.
20080028643FLOAT MECHANISM FOR MATERIAL-MOVING IMPLEMENTFebruary, 2008Osgood et al.
20090217554ENCLOSED SNOW MELT SYSTEMSeptember, 2009Tucker
20080052968Plow system for non-highway vehiclesMarch, 2008Dilworth et al.
20070022635Self-propelled snow removerFebruary, 2007Yamazaki et al.
20070245603Quick CouplerOctober, 2007Vering et al.



Primary Examiner:
SITTNER, MATTHEW T
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
Stephen Summer (Langhorne, PA, US)
Claims:
1. An automated snow removal tracking system, comprising: a GPS receiver positioned on a snow removal unit; a microprocessor unit positioned on the snow removal unit and being in communication with the GPS receiver; and a data transmission and receiver unit positioned on the snow removal unit and being in communication with the microprocessor unit, wherein the microprocessor unit is configured to conduct the following steps: receiving GPS position representative data from the GPS receiver; determining if the snow removal unit is located at a removal location; recording working or billing time information when the snow removal unit is located at the removal location; and transmitting the working or billing time information to a base location through the data transmission and receiver unit.

2. The snow removal tracking system of claim 1, wherein the microprocessor unit comprises a handheld computer.

3. The snow removal tracking system of claim 1, wherein the data transmission and receiver unit comprise at least one of a cellular communication device and a radio communication device.

4. The snow removal tracking system of claim 2, wherein the handheld computer further comprises a memory device configured to contain a software program that controls the operation of the tracking system.

5. The snow removal tracking system of claim 1, wherein determining if the snow removal unit is located at a removal location comprises: determining a current location from GPS position representative data; and comparing the current location to a database of predetermined removal locations to determine if the current location is within a predetermined removal location.

6. The snow removal tracking system of claim 6, wherein the predetermined removal location is defined by a geo fence.

7. The snow removal tracking system of claim 6, wherein the geo fence comprises a plurality of predetermined location points that define a geographical boundary around the removal location.

8. The snow removal tracking system of claim 1, further comprising generating at least one of billing, accounting, invoicing, and scheduling information at the base location from the working or billing time information received.

9. A method for tracking a snow removal unit, comprising: defining a geographical fence around a removal location; determining a current location of a removal unit through GPS location determination; comparing the determined current location to the defined geographical fence to determine if the removal unit is within the geographical fence; starting a working time when the removal unit is determined to be within the geographical fence; stopping the working time when the removal unit is determined to be outside of the geographical fence; and transmitting data representative of the working time to a base location from the removal unit.

10. The method for tracking the snow removal unit of claim 9, wherein defining a geographical fence around a removal location comprises surveying the removal location and determining coordinates that represent a boundary of the removal location.

11. The method for tracking the snow removal unit of claim 9, wherein determining a current location of a removal unit comprises receiving a GPS location representation signal from a GPS satellite and determining the current location from the GPS representation signal through GPS location processing.

12. The method for tracking the snow removal unit of claim 9, wherein starting and stopping the working time further comprises tracking the working time of the removal unit.

13. The method for tracking the snow removal unit of claim 12, wherein tracking the working time of the removal unit further comprises determining if the removal unit is working during the entire time the removal unit is within the geographical fence and stopping the working time when the removal unit is within the geographical fence but not working.

14. The method for tracking the snow removal unit of claim 9, wherein transmitting data representative of the working time to a base location comprises transmitting the data via at least one of a cellular and a radio signal.

15. The method for tracking the snow removal unit of claim 9, wherein transmitting data representative of the working time to a base location comprises hard wire connecting the removal unit to the base location.

16. The method for tracking the snow removal unit of claim 14, further comprising using the data representative of the working time to generate at least one of invoices, accounting reports, and scheduling information.

17. The method for tracking the snow removal unit of claim 9, further comprising directing the removal unit to a new removal location when the removal unit leaves the geographical fence and transmits the working time data to the base location.

18. The method for tracking the snow removal unit of claim 9, further comprising tracking the usage of individual snow removal implements.

19. The method for tracking the snow removal unit of claim 18, further comprising transmitting data representative of the usage of the individual implements to at least one of the removal unit and the base location.

20. An automated method for tracking the working time of a snow removal unit, comprising: using a GPS location device to determine when a removal unit is located on a removal property; tracking a time period the removal unit spends at the removal property; transmitting the time period spent at the removal property to a base location via a cellular signal; generating a billing invoice for the removal property at the base location; and transmitting a new property location needing removal services to the removal unit via a cellular signal.

Description:

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

1. Field of the Invention

Embodiments of the invention generally relate to an apparatus and method for automating tracking processes for a snow removal business.

2. Description of the Related Art

In the snow removal business, there are several challenges associated with tracking what properties have been cleared, what properties have been billed, what services have been provided at particular properties, what properties are under weather conditions that will necessitate attention in the near future, etc. These challenges have a direct impact on the profitability of snow removal businesses, as the time and manpower it takes to monitor and control these issues has an associated cost, and this cost is often times a significant portion of the operating budget for a snow removal business.

Conventionally, snow removal companies track and control these issues through a manual paper and pencil driven operation. For example, scheduling of which properties are to be cleared is done by one or more staff members in an office that attempt to coordinate which removal units are assigned to which jobs on a paper schedule. One the properties are scheduled, the removal units are sent out to do the work, however, the office staff generally does not know if all of the properties were cleared until much later, often times not until the next day, and the removal crews work several locations before returning to the office to confirm that the work has been completed. This process opens up the possibility that a property can be overlooked by either the scheduling staff or the removal crew, and more importantly, that the oversight might not be discovered until the next day. In this situation, a client will almost certainly be displeased and likely to seek another removal provider.

Staff members are also charged with reconciling what services have been provided at the particular locations after the removal unit has returned to the office or base and communicated the services provided to the staff. In a paper and pencil driven operation, the reconciling process generally involves collecting work order forms that were filled out on site by the removal crews, and entering the data from these forms into the billing system for invoicing.

Inasmuch as work orders are conventionally filled out on site by the removal crews and then transferred to the office staff for invoicing, there are inherent inaccuracies that are injected into the process. For example, since the work order paperwork is filled out on site by the removal crew, it is often subject to weather conditions, e.g., snow and ice, which causes illegible work orders. Additionally, the work order information must be transferred to the staff before it is actually recorded in the system that generates the invoices, and when a removal crew is assigned to several work locations before returning to the office, as is often times the case, the work orders are frequently lost or damaged before they are ever transferred to the office staff. Further still, even when the work orders are transferred to the office staff, there is still a possibility that the information on the work order will not be correctly entered into the billing or invoicing system through human error or illegible items in the work orders.

Another challenge associated with conventional processes is the onsite tracking of the services provided. More particularly, a typical removal process for a property is multifaceted, i.e., the removal process includes plowing, shoveling, salting, etc., and these processes are generally conducted by a crew of workers. As such, the work conducted by each worker must be tracked and accounted for so that the snow removal company can properly invoice the property owner for the services provided. The number of workers, tasks, and working conditions lend to errors and/or omissions in the tracking process, which equates to a loss of revenue for the snow removal company.

In view of the above noted challenges associated with conventional processes, there is a need for an automated snow removal tracking system that is capable of tracking the services provided at each property. There is further a need for a tracking system that is capable of interfacing with automated billing and/or invoicing systems for a snow removal company.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

Embodiments of the invention generally provide an automated snow removal tracking system. The tracking system of the invention is global positioning satellite (GPS) based, e.g., GPS based technology is used to determine when a removal crew arrives at a specific property, what work is conducted at the property, when the removal crew leaves the property, etc. This information is also used to verify scheduling of crews for particular properties, to track services provided at the particular properties, and to support billing and invoicing for each property.

Embodiments of the invention provide a tracking system for a snow removal remote unit and crew. The tracking system of the invention is configured to interface with a GPS system to determine the location of a remote unit, and more particularly, to determine if the remote unit is operating at a removal location. If the removal unit is operating at a removal location, the tracking system of the invention is configured to track the time expended at the removal location conducting removal operations. Once the removal operations are completed at the removal location, the tracking system of the invention is configured to transmit the tracking data to a base location where the information may be used for accounting, billing, invoicing, and/or scheduling operations via transmission or interfacing of the data to other software processes configured to conduct these processes.

Embodiments of the invention may further provide an automated snow removal tracking system. The automated tracking system generally includes a GPS receiver positioned on a snow removal unit, a microprocessor unit positioned on the snow removal unit and being in communication with the GPS receiver, and a data transmission and receiver unit positioned on the snow removal unit and being in communication with the microprocessor unit. The system is set up such that the microprocessor unit is configured to receive GPS position representative data from the GPS receiver, determine if the snow removal unit is located at a removal location, record working or billing time information when the snow removal unit is located at the removal location, and transmit the working or billing time information to a base location through the data transmission and receiver unit.

Embodiments of the invention may further provide a method for tracking a snow removal unit. The method includes defining a geographical fence around a removal location, determining a current location of a removal unit through GPS location determination, comparing the determined current location to the defined geographical fence to determine if the removal unit is within the geographical fence, starting a working time when the removal unit is determined to be within the geographical fence, stopping the working time when the removal unit is determined to be outside of the geographical fence, and transmitting data representative of the working time to a base location.

Embodiments of the invention may further provide an automated method for tracking the working time of a snow removal unit. The automated method generally includes using a GPS location device to determine when a removal unit is located on a removal property, tracking a time period the removal unit spends at the removal property, transmitting the time period spent at the removal property to a base location via a cellular signal, generating a billing invoice for the removal property at the base location, and transmitting a new property location needing removal services to the removal unit via a cellular signal.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

So that the manner in which the above recited features of the present invention are attained can be understood in detail, a more particular description of the invention, briefly summarized above and described herein, may be had by reference to the embodiments thereof, which are illustrated in the appended drawings. It is to be noted, however, that the appended drawings illustrate only typical and/or exemplary embodiments of the invention, and are therefore, not intended to be considered limiting of the scope of the invention, as the invention may admit to other equally effective embodiments not specifically illustrated or discussed herein.

FIG. 1 illustrates an overall generic view of an exemplary automated snow removal tracking system of the invention.

FIG. 2 illustrates a plan view of a snow removal location.

FIG. 3 illustrates a front view of an exemplary remote tracking unit of the invention.

FIG. 4 illustrates a general schematic of exemplary control circuitry for the remote tracking unit of the invention.

FIG. 5 illustrates a general schematic of exemplary control circuitry for a base station of the snow removal tracking system of the invention.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENT

Embodiments of the invention generally provide an automated snow removal tracking system. The tracking system of the invention has a GPS backbone, i.e., the tracking system of the invention uses GPS technology to support the tracking functions of the invention. The GPS technology is generally used to determine when a snow removal crew arrives at a specific property to begin snow removal work, the duration and/or type of snow removal work being conducted at the property, the time when the snow removal crew leaves the property where the snow removal work has been completed, the time associated with travel between snow removal locations, the routes used for traveling between the respective snow removal locations, and/or any other location based operations that may be determined through GPS based technology. The GPS data/information is also used to verify scheduling of crews for particular properties, to track services provided at the particular properties, and to interface with billing and invoicing programs to facilitate efficient and accurate billing for each property serviced.

FIG. 1 illustrates an overall generic view of an exemplary automated snow removal tracking system 100 of the invention. The tracking system 100 generally includes a mobile unit 104, which may be a snow plow unit, for example. The mobile unit is generally equipped with a GPS receiver 110 that is configured to receive positioning signals from a GPS satellite system 102, as is known in the art. The mobile unit 104 may also include a transmission system 112 configured to communicate with a base station 106 via a base station transmission station 114. The transmission system 112 may be a radio communication system, a cellular communication system, or another system capable of bidirectional communication for voice and/or data. The exemplary automated snow removal tracking system 100 also includes a remote sensor 108 that is configured to measure predetermined parameters at a remote location and transmit data representative of the parameters to the base location 106 and/or the mobile unit 104.

In operation, generally speaking, the mobile unit 104 receives signals from the GPS satellite 102 that allow a processing unit (not shown, but further discussed herein) onboard the remote unit 104 to determine the location of the remote unit. The location determination is used to determine if the remote unit is on a job site, i.e., the perimeter coordinates of each job site may be mapped and stored in a memory of the processor (not shown) for the remote unit, so that the remote unit 104 can independently determine if it is on a job site through the GPS location information compared to the stored job site perimeter information. The location determination can then be used to determine the amount of working or billing time each remote unit 104 spends at a particular job site, e.g., the working or billing time determination would start when the remote unit 104 arrives at the job site location, and the working or billing time would end when the remote unit 104 leaves the job site location. The time that the remote unit 104 spends at a specific job site location can then be used to generate an invoice or to accomplish other accounting or record keeping functions for the job site location.

The working or billing time determination for the remote unit 104 may include determining if the remote unit 104 is on site, but not working. For example, the remote unit 104 may be on site, but the unit may be on break, conducting repairs, and/or conducting ancillary activities not related to the billing for the remote unit 104, such as manually shoveling, etc. As such, the processing unit for the remote unit 104 may be configured to determine if the remote unit 104 is working at any particular time. This determination may be done through a location comparison and timing operation. For example, the processing unit may monitor the location information for the remote unit 104, and if the location of the remote unit 104 does not change over a predetermined period of time, such as about 5 minutes, for example, the processing unit may determine that the remote unit 104 is not moving or not currently working. In this situation it may be determined that the work or billing time corresponding to the activity related to the remote unit 104 (plowing or salting, for example) should be suspended until the remote unit 104 begins moving/working again.

Similar GPS, motion, and/or processor driven systems may be used to track the activity of operations related to the remote unit 104. For example, in the instance where remote unit 104 is a mobile snow plow or salting unit, additional location or motion sensing devices may be used to determine when salt, sand, etc. is being applied. In this situation, the sensors may be used to start a timer that corresponds with the active operation (salting, sanding, etc.) to determine a working or billing time for the particular operation. In another embodiment of the invention, a separate sensor or indicator may be used to determine when a manual shoveling operation is being conducted aside from the plowing operations being conducted by the remote unit 104. In similar fashion to previous embodiments of the invention, the sensor may be used to determine a start and stop time for the shoveling operation. In another embodiment of the invention, each member of the removal crew associated with the remote unit 104 may wear an article of clothing (such as a vest) that has a GPS sensor embedded in the clothing. These GPS sensors may be used to determine when each crew member is working on particular tasks, etc. In another embodiment of the invention, each snow removal tool (shovels, snow throwers or blowers, salters, sanders, etc.) may be equipped with a GPS or motion sensor configured to determine or indicate when the respective tools are in use through a location and/or time determination comparison (as described above). The “in use” time determinations noted above may be conducted by the remote unit 104 processor, or optionally, calculated on board the respective tools. Regardless of the calculation location, embodiments of the present invention contemplate that the “in use” time data will eventually be transmitted to the base location 104 so that the information may be used to generate an invoice for the property owner. The information may be transmitted by radio, cellular, or through a hard wired connection, depending upon the particular embodiment of the invention.

FIG. 2 illustrates a plan view of a snow removal location 200. The removal location 200 generally includes a building or other structure 210 having a sidewalk 204 that connects the building or structure 210 to a parking lot 202. The parking lot is generally connected to a street 208 that allows for access to the parking lot 202. Generally speaking, one or more of the sensors 108 may be positioned at various locations around the removal location 200. The sensors 108 may be positioned, for example, in the parking lot 202 pavement, embedded in the sidewalk 204, or at another location proximate the removal location 200. The overall purpose of the sensors 108 may be to record weather related data, such as temperature, moisture, accumulation of snow, ice, etc. The information recorded by the sensors 108 may be saved locally in the sensors 108, or alternatively, the sensors 108 may be equipped with a transmitter that is configured to transmit the information recorded by the sensor 108 to either the remote unit 104, the base location 106, or another location or device configured to receive and store the weather related information from the sensors 108. The information gathered by the sensors 108 may be used to automatically determine when removal work is needed at the removal location 200, as the sensor may determine when snow accumulation is happening or may determine when moisture is present and the temperature facilitates ice formation that would necessitate ice removal or salting. In one embodiment of the invention, the sensors 108 may record weather information and transmit the weather information to the base location 106, where snow and/or ice removal services may be scheduled in accordance with the sensor data recorded. This embodiment of the invention facilitates and increases the efficiency of scheduling, as locations that do not need removal services can be skipped, and locations that need immediate attention of removal crews can be prioritized in the scheduling process.

The removal location 200 also includes a geo fence 206. The geo fence 206 generally represents GPS data coordinates that define a perimeter or boundary of the removal location 200. The perimeter boundary is determined to be a size, shape, location, and/or coordinates that surround the portions of the removal location 200 that will require snow removal services. For example, the geo fence 206 will generally surround the parking lot 202 and the sidewalk 204, as these are locations that will generally require snow or ice removal. The geo fence 206 generally represents a boundary that when the remote unit 104 crosses the boundary, the remote unit 104 is considered to be working at the removal location 200. For example, when the remote unit 104 travels to the removal location 200, the remote unit 104 will cross the geo fence 206 boundary when the remote unit 104 exits the street 208 and enters the parking lot 202 of the removal location 200. When the geo fence 206 is crossed, the working or billing time discussed above for the remote unit 104 may be started, as the remote unit 104 is generally considered to be plowing or removing snow when it enters the removal location 202. Similarly, in embodiments of the invention were the individual crew members or the snow removal tools are equipped with a GPS or motion detecting sensor, when the sensor is within the geo fence 206 and detects that the worker or implement is doing removal tasks, the work or billing time for the worker or implement may be started for tracking or accounting purposes.

Returning to the discussion of the hardware related to the automated snow removal tracking system of the invention, FIG. 3 illustrates a front view of an exemplary remote tracking unit 300 of the invention that may be positioned in the remote unit 104 (or alternatively, on the person on one of the removal crew in the form of a hand held computer/GPS unit). The tracking unit 300 may include a display screen 302, one or more input or selection buttons 304, and one or more visual indicators 306. The remote tracking unit is generally in communication with a GPS antenna/receiver 110 (see FIG. 1) and is configured to receive GPS coordinate related signals from a GPS satellite 102. The GPS coordinate related signals are processed by the remote tracking unit 300 to determine the exact location of the remote tracking unit 300 (within the tolerances allowed by the GPS coordinate related data). The exact determined location of the remote unit 300 may then be used to determine the above mentioned functions, i.e., is the remote tracking unit 300 within the geo fence 206, and if so, then start the billing or working time duration. Similar processes may be used to determine the time and billing information noted above with respect to the snow removal operations and the work conducted by the individual removal crew members, e.g., if a snow shovel is at a removal location (within a geo fence 206) and is moving in a manner consistent with a removal process, then it may be determined that the snow shovel is being used in a removal process and a billing time related to shoveling snow with the shovel may be tracked.

FIG. 4 illustrates a general schematic of exemplary control circuitry 400 for an exemplary remote tracking unit 300 of the invention. The control circuitry 400 generally includes a central processing unit (CPU) 402, which may be a microprocessor controller or any other electronic controller configured to process and/or execute a control program. The control circuitry further includes a power supply 404, which may be a battery or other source of power configured to run a microprocessor-type controller. A memory unit 408 may also be in communication with the CPU 402, and the memory unit 408 may be configured to contain program instructions that the CPU 402 may use to conduct the control processes of the invention, and further, the memory unit 408 may be used to store data generated or received by the CPU 402 while executing a program or data representing user inputs for the program. The CPU 402 may also be in communication with a plurality of display units or buttons 410 (similar to elements 302, 304, and 206 from FIG. 3) that may be used to relay information generated or received by the CPU 402 to the user and receive inputs from the user. The CPU 402 may also be in communication with a plurality of sensors 406, such as sensors that indicate with operations are being conducted by the remote unit 104 (plowing, shoveling, salting, sanding, etc.). The CPU 402 is also generally in communication with a transmitter/receiver unit 412 that may be in communication with one or more of a GPS satellite location determination interface 414, a radio communication interface 416, and/or a cellular communication interface 418. The transmitter/receiver unit 412 generally operations in cooperation with the interfaces 414, 416, 418 to communicate with devices external to the control circuitry 400. For example, unit 412 and cooperating components may be used to communicate with sensors 108, base location 106 (both shown in FIG. 1), other removal units 104, other handheld units 300, or other computers or data sources that may be useful in a snow removal operation. One such exemplary data source may be a weather prediction or tracking database, such as the National Weather Service database, so that the user of the remote unit 300 may have instantaneous access to weather data to help with planning of removal service. The control circuitry 400, or variants thereof, may be used to track movement and location of specific snow removal implements, such as snow shovels, etc. This may be accomplished by implanting the circuitry 400 within the particular implement so that when the implement is being used, a signal may be sent to one of the remote unit 300 or the base station 106 to track the time that the implement is being used for billing purposes.

FIG. 5 illustrates a general schematic of an exemplary control circuitry 500 for the base station 106 of the snow removal tracking system of the invention. The control circuitry generally includes a CPU 502 that is in communication with a memory 506 and/or database 504. The memory 506 and/or database 504 are generally configured to contain program instructions and data related to the tracking functions of the invention. The CPU 502 is also in communication with a transmitter/receiver 508 that is generally configured to receive signals from the remote units 104 and any other removal devices associated with the snow removal process. The CPU 502 is also in communication with a mapping module 516 that is configured to correlate geographical information related to removal properties to GPS data and to transmit this information to the remote units 104 via the transmitter 508. The CPU 502 is also in communication with a plurality of software processing modules or components, including, but not limited to a scheduling module 510, an accounting module 512, and an oversight module 514. The scheduling module may, for example, comprise a software process or routine configured to determine what properties need removal services and what crews are assigned to each of the respective properties to insure that every property is covered and that no property is assigned multiple crews unnecessarily. The accounting module 512, for example, may be configured to receive information from the rem9te units 104 representative of the time spent at a specific removal property and the types of removal services provided. The accounting module 512 may then take this information and generate an invoice for the property owner that is representative of the services provided at the location. Additionally, the accounting module 512 may be configured to generate payroll information for the removal crew that worked the property through predetermined algorithms that use the information received from the remote unit 104. The oversight module 514, for example, may be a module that tracks each removal crew, unit, and implement. This module may be used as a final oversight to prevent double booking of crews at locations, missing of a removal location, rescheduling of crews at specific locations when another crew is delayed or otherwise unable to meet a scheduled removal project, correct invoicing, and correct payroll processing.

In operation, embodiments of the invention are configured to track the services provided by a plurality of removal crews working at a plurality of removal locations, wherein each crew may be providing several types of removal services. Additionally, the tracking functions of the present invention are generally automated, e.g., most of the functionality of the tracking system of the invention requires no user interaction to function. Further, the tracking system of the invention is configured to interface with an accounting program to allow for automated generation of invoices representative of the removal services provided, which eliminates the need for manual tracking and invoicing.

Generally, the first operational step of the invention is to determine if a removal unit 104 is operating inside a geo fence 206. This determination generally comprises comparing a GPS location calculated by a remote processing unit 300 to a stored location representing the geo fence 206. The stored location may generally be predetermined through a site visit, e.g., when a client signs up for removal service, a representative of the removal company may survey the removal location 200 to determine the boundaries of the geo fence 206. The survey results representing the boundaries for the removal location 200 may be stored in the base location database 504 and transmitted to the remote units 300 when needed. Thus, when a removal unit 104 (a snow plow unit, typically) enters the property (removal location 200), the unit 104 crosses the geo fence 206 and enters the property. When the removal unit 104 crosses the geo fence 206, the processing unit 300 compares the current location of the removal unit 104 (which is obtained from GPS data representative of the current location of the removal unit, as discussed above) to the predetermined boundary of the geo fence 206 to determine if the removal unit 104 is within the geo fence 206. If the removal unit 104 is determined to be within the geo fence 206, then the processing unit 300 may start a working timer or billing timer configured to track the time the removal unit 104 spends at the removal location 200 doing snow plow operations.

Inasmuch as the working or billing time calculation for the removal unit 104 is generally determined to start when a removal unit 104 enters the geo fence 206 boundary and to stop when the unit 104 leaves the geo fence 206 boundary, it is generally assumed that every minute of time the removal unit 104 spends within the geo fence 206 is working or billing time. However, there are instances where this may not be the case. For example, in a situation where the driver of the removal unit 104 is on a break, where the driver is conducting maintenance operations on the removal unit 104, or any other situation where the removal unit 104 is stationary while within the geo fence 206, the processing unit 300 generally determines that the entire time that the removal unit 104 is within the geo fence is billing or working time.

One embodiment of the present invention is configured to address this issue by configuring the remote units 300 to determine if the remote unit 104 is working at predetermined intervals while the removal unit 104 is within the geo fence 206. More particularly, the remote unit 300 may be configured to continually monitor the position of the removal unit 104 and to compare the monitored position to the most recent determined position. If the processing unit 300 makes this comparison and determines that the removal unit 104 has not changed position after a predetermined period of time, then the remote unit 300 may be configured to stop the billing or working time. The billing or working time may be restarted when next sequence of location comparisons determines that the removal unit 104 has changed position and is still within the boundary of the geo fence 206. The predetermined period of time between the location determinations and comparisons may be set to any duration, for example, between about 1 minute and about 15 minutes, depending upon the billing parameters for the removal company.

In another embodiment of the invention, various snow removal implements or articles may be included in the automated tracking system of the invention. For example, removal implements such as snow shovels, hoes, ice removal tools or scrapers, etc. may be equipped with sensors and circuits that allow the working or billing time of the specific implements to also be tracked. For example, each individual implement may be equipped with a GPS detector and/or a motion detector and a means for transmitting information to the remote unit processor 300 or the base location 106. The combination of one or more of these detectors may be used to determine when the specific implement is being used for removal work. The implement may simply transmit location and/or motion information back to the remote processing unit 300 for determination of a working or billing time, or alternatively, the implement may itself include a processing unit similar to unit 300 that is capable of transmitting information back to the base location 106. Other embodiments of the invention utilize this same concept to track the working time of removal crew members, i.e., each member of the removal crew may carry an electronic unit that includes the aforementioned GPS and/or motion sensors configured to determine working and/or billing time of the individual crew member.

In another embodiment of the invention, the remote unit 104 includes a plurality of sensors that are in communication with the remote processing unit 300. The sensors, for example, may be configured to determine if the remote unit 104 is conducting operations such as salting, sanding, plowing, etc. These sensors may be positioned at various locations on the remote unit 104, i.e., on a slide valve that allows the salt or sand to be transmitted to a spreading apparatus, on the lift mechanism that raises and lowers a snow plow blade, etc. Regardless of the type of sensor or the positioning of the sensor, the purpose of the sensor(s) is to communicate with the processing unit 300 so that the removal actions being conducted by the remote unit 104 may be tracked and recorded.

In each of the above described embodiments, when the remote unit 104 enters the geo fence 206, the working or billing time for the remote unit 104 is started. Embodiments of the invention also contemplate that when the remote unit 104 leaves the boundaries defined by the geo fence 206, that the determination or tracking of the working or billing time is stopped. The termination of the working or billing time may be automatically stopped for each person, unit, implement, etc. that is being tracked for the removal crew that is working at the specific removal location. Additionally, once the remote unit leave the removal location, the remote processing unit 300 may transmit data representative working or billing time for each unit 104, removal crew member, removal implement, sensor, etc. to the base location 104. When the information is received at the base location 106, the information may be interfaced or communicated to a software package configured to conduct accounting or billing operations for the removal company. These software packages may then generate invoices, billing statements, accounting reports, schedule reports, etc. as desired by the user.

In another embodiment of the invention, the data transmitted back to the base station 106 after a remote unit 104 has completed removal operations at a particular location may be used to determine the next location that the remote unit 104 may be assigned to. More particularly, when the remote unit 104 completes the removal tasks at a first removal location and the tracking data is transmitted to the base location 106, a scheduling software package may also be activated. The scheduling software may generally be configured to determine what the next removal location will be for the removal unit 104. The determination of the next removal location may be determined through a plurality of parameters including the proximity of the next location to the removal unit 104, the removal requirements of the location and the capability of the removal unit 104 (the capability of the unit 104 may be predetermined and stored in the scheduling software package), and other parameters relevant to scheduling of crews for snow removal processes. Once the next removal location has been determined by the software, the next removal location may be transmitted to the remote unit 104. The next location may then be displayed to the crew leader on the display of the processing unit 300. Further, inasmuch as the remote unit is GPS equipped, the remote processing unit 300 may also determine the most efficient route to the next removal location and display directions representative thereof to the driver of the remote unit 104. This feature of the invention obviously prevents scheduling errors or duplication of removal crews at a particular location.

While the foregoing is directed to embodiments of the present invention, other and further embodiments of the invention may be devised without departing from the basic scope thereof, where the scope thereof is determined by the claims that follow.