GPS systems have truly made their mark on the UK in recent years. From its origins as a high-end, luxury project available mainly as an additional add-on in new cars, GPS is now embedded in almost all of our smartphones and looks to be well on its way to replacing our natural orienteering skills.

But a pilot project in Surrey has underlined the life-saving potential of the technology. Surrey Telecare Service, which consists of the county council and the 11 district and borough councils, plans to issue credit card-sized GPS devices to people with dementia in the region. It is hoped that this initiative will help these individuals avoid joining the tens of thousands of people with dementia who go missing somewhere in the UK every year.

The device, made by Finnish business Navigil, features a battery, an integrated chip and SIM card and a USB port for charging. It allows train, bus and foot routes to be plotted, and if the owner of the device appears to be getting lost, their relatives will immediately receive a computer or smartphone message pinpointing their loved one’s location on Google Maps.

Across the UK, there are around 800,000 people with dementia. In Surrey, around 15,000 people have the condition, and by 2020, this figure is predicted to increase to 19,000. Sharp rises such as this have led to people such as the former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations Professor Peter Piot describing dementia as the “next global health time-bomb.” Approximately 40,000 people with dementia will go missing every year, and this problem is one of the most common concerns for their families and carers.

Not only should the GPS device give the relatives of dementia sufferers peace-of-mind when their loved ones are out and about, but it should also help people with the condition maintain a quality of life and a level of independence by supporting them in their freedom to do everyday activities.

When we use devices such as GPS smartphones, we don’t consider the full potential of the gadget; schemes like this one in Surrey demonstrate that there is a lot more to GPS than we might think.