How GPS works and what might come next?

21 November 2017

The Global Position System (GPS) is a technology system that has become engrained into modern electronics. Although starting out as a technology exclusive to the military, it is now hard to imagine a civilian world without GPS. Most of us would be pretty hard pressed to function without our smartphones, but smartphone technology and GPS systems are two technology areas that complement each other like no other. Most of us have Apps on our smartphones that require or at least encourage to us to enable them to have access to our location using GPS technology. Whether you’re checking in on Facebook, ordering an Uber or following directions on Google Maps, it’s hard to imagine using them to their full capability without the use of GPS technology. 

But, how much do we really know about this technology that we use nearly every day? How is the technology improving and what developments lie ahead?

Despite the term ‘GPS’ being so commonly known it is probably used incorrectly the majority of the time. The ‘GPS’ is the name given to the United States Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). The name of the technology field is GNSS. Although the US GPS was the first to be developed and has been the most successful, this is only an example of one such system. The other truly ‘global’ systems are the formerly soviet and now Russian ‘GLONASS’ and the EU and European Space Agency ‘Galileo’ system. Other regional systems also exist such as the Chinese ‘BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS)’.

GNSS relies on satellites, which circle the Earth twice a day in a precise orbit. Each satellite transmits a unique signal and orbital parameters that allows devices to decode and compute the precise location of that particular satellite. A GNSS receiver uses the location of three such satellites to pinpoint the receiver’s exact location using trilateration. Using this process, the receiver can identify the distance it is from three satellites. If the distance from each respective satellite were projected radially, then the point at which the radii intersect is the location of the receiver. GNSSs are designed such that at least four satellites will be ‘visible’ to a receiver at any given time, thus a receiver will be able to use trilateration at any given time to determine its location.

GNSS, and in particular GPS, was one of several other major technological developments to come out of the Cold War. The idea developed after US researchers identified that they could accurately track the movement of the first satellite launched into orbit ‘Sputnik’. The movement of the satellite could be tracked by the detection of Doppler shifts from the satellite. This idea was effectively reverse engineered to track targets such as submarines using a satellite. The idea for the project started in 1973 and later the satellites that would come to form the first fully operational GPS were launched between 1978 and 1985. Initially GPS technology was only available for use by the US military. However, in 1996 this restriction was lifted, and the GPS became available for civilian users. A particularly important development for GPS as we know it came in 2004 when American telecoms company Qualcomm successfully tested assisted GPS in mobile phones.

We all understand many of the current uses of GNSS, particularly when used with our smartphones, but what future developments and applications can we expect in this technology?

Many of us will have successfully used GPS whether in our smartphone or in a Satnav to get from A to B, often in areas we have never been before. However, the system is not always foolproof and cannot always pinpoint our location as accurately as we would like, which can lead to confusion. The current accuracy of today’s location enabled smartphones is to within five meters. However, US semiconductor company, Broadcom, has announced that they have developed semiconductor chips that can improve the location accuracy to within just 30 centimeters.

GPS technology has even begun to stretch to areas few people would have imagined upon its creation. The UK Bookmaking industry, and in particular horse racing, has embraced the potential of GPS to provide gamblers with even more stats and information. Details such as sectional times within races, precisely how much ground each horse has covered, its stride length and pattern, and how quickly it clears an obstacle over jumps, will soon be available to gamblers in real-time during a race thanks to advances in GPS and big data technologies.

Many of us will have used GPS enabled tools while driving to navigate across the country. However, telematics companies such as Tracker are using our movements from GPS enabled devices to better locate accidents and predict traffic trends. Tracker alone receives 40 million packets of information per day and can use this information to help better improve road users’ needs.

Top level sport is another area which is realizing the potential of GPS as teams search for ways to give themselves an edge over their competitors. Ten of the 12 premiership rugby teams are using devices which players can wear so that their performance and stats can be accurately monitored through training sessions and games. The devices can compute 1,000 data points per training session for each player, giving clubs unprecedented access to data and information. The devices can generate a large number of readings such as a player’s speed, change of direction and acceleration/deceleration. In particular, the devices can give a measure of when a player experiences a “significant load”, which can be indicative of a potential cause of injury such as a concussion.

We can see that GPS and GNSS systems have developed massively since their creation during the Cold War. As the technology has advanced it has found itself entering an enormous variety of areas and this number is sure to continue to grow. As a truly global and almost universally applicable technology, GPS and related systems are sure to continue to improve our lives for years to come.

Luke Jones

Luke Jones

Trainee Patent Attorney

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