March 6, 2019

Global Positioning System (GPS): The Past, Present, and Future

Written by Garret Weigel | Supply Chain

“GPS” is a common term these days. The Global Positioning System, originally called Navstar GPS (a network of U.S. satellites that now provides positioning services globally), is an interstellar radio-navigation system. It incorporates a constellation of satellites and a network of ground stations for monitoring and control over positioning technology. Approximately 32 GPS satellites orbit the Earth at an approximate altitude of 11,000 miles, providing users with accurate information on position, velocity, and time anywhere in the world and in any weather condition.


The Department of Defense (DoD) operates and maintains GPS. The National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Executive Committee manages GPS, while the U.S. Coast Guard acts as the civil interface to the public for GPS matters.


As a global navigation satellite system, it provides geolocation and time information to a receiver. A receiver may be anywhere on (or near) the Earth. But there must be an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. Mountains, structures, and other obstacles block signals due to their relatively weak strength. GPS does not require that a user transmits data. It operates independently of any telephonic or internet reception (though they are commonly used to enhance the utility of GPS positioning data).


GPS provides critical positioning capabilities to military, civil, commercial, and individual users around the world. The United States government created the system, maintains it, and makes it freely accessible to anyone with a GPS receiver.


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In The Beginning

The origins of GPS began in 1973 with the U.S. Department of Defense. By creating a system that overcame the limitations of many existing navigation systems, it appealed to a wide array of users throughout the world. Over time it has been successfully used in nearly all navigation applications. Its capabilities are accessible using small, inexpensive equipment, making it an ideal technology for users wherever in the world they are.


The technology was originally intended for the U.S. military. GPS was allowed for civilian use in the 1980s. In 1988, Vice President Al Gore and the White House initiated the next generation of GPS Block IIIA satellites and the Next Generation Operational Control System.


In the early 1990s, GPS quality was degraded by "Selective Availability;" the problem was eliminated by a subsequent law signed by then President Bill Clinton. GPS became fully operational in 1995. Advances in technology and new demands prompted lawmakers to make its functionality more accessible. In 2000, the U.S. Congress authorized GPS Block IIIA, further expanding the capabilities of GPS.


GPS is undeniably a valuable technology. It aids the control of dispersed and distributed assets, enabling visibility, navigation, and many other functions. For transportation, it provides a means to control shipments, navigate pathways, improve routing, and control movable assets. It also enables device users to employ geolocation capabilities in a myriad of ways. For example, workers may use it to accomplish location-dependent tasks more efficiently and effectively.


Future Considerations

In the future, additional technology will continue to enhance GPS. Navigation systems in distributed assets and devices use the space-based Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), which includes the U.S. system GPS, Russian system GLONASS, European system Galileo, and Chinese system Beidou. There is a constant push forward by scientists around the world to improve GPS and develop technology and applications that supplement, replace, or enhance it.


For precision applications such as aerospace flight and missiles, navigation systems may combine GPS with an on-board Inertial Navigation System (INS). INS delivers high-level accuracy in the short term; it eventually drifts when it loses touch with external signals.


Scientists believe that existing GPS/INS systems, though complex and useful, will not meet future demands of, say, autonomous vehicles. Since GPS signals are weak, they are unusable in places like deep canyons or obstructed remote locations. Additionally, GPS signals are prone to jamming (both intentionally and unintentionally), are unencrypted and unauthenticated. This leaves them open to spoofing, hacking, and other security compromises.


Since 2016, a team of researchers at the University of California, Riverside have been developing a highly reliable and accurate navigation system that exploits other signals such as cellular and Wi-Fi. They anticipate this new development may serve as an alternative to or complement GPS. Summarily, the use of such technology provides a reliable, consistent, tamper-proof navigation technology.


Whatever new technologies may replace or complement GPS, it is still and likely to continue altering existing and new industries. McKinsey, in their article, "How Disruptive Technologies Are Opening Up Innovative Opportunities in Services," (November 2018) included GPS as disruptive technology that will not only bring results, but positive change.


They say: "Supporting a distributed field organization requires a well-managed fleet, something companies often struggle to achieve. To unlock value, they need to harvest and integrate large sets of granular fleet data – GPS tracking, routing histories, and the like – that often go untouched because of resource constraints or the proliferation of data warehouses. In one industrial OEM, we found that the use of digital systems and analytics can typically reduce fleet costs by 7 to 12% and spare fleet by 10%, while improving availability by 5 to 10%."


The journey of GPS and the benefit it provides is a milestone in our technological progress for the transportation industry, as well as many others.


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