Understanding GPS and the Future of Positioning Tech

What Is The Global Positioning System?

The Global Positioning Systems (GPS) is a U.S-owned and operated system that can give precise, relative, or general location information. Officially, information about location is called Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) because those three elements come together to provide GPS services.

For most people, GPS is a way to figure out where they are on a smartphone, navigate on a map, or find the location of something else. GPS is an exact service with exact data, but that data can be used to feed many larger systems.

A DAGR military GPS device.
The Defense Advanced Global positioning system Receivers (DAGRs) are the latest handheld GPS device used by the US military (Air Force Photo)

How Does GPS Work?

At a basic level, GPS works by sending information to and from space, as well as between various terrestrial (generally ground-based) stations.

Satellites, communications buildings, antennas, and various broadcast network tools work together to share information with each other. You either use GPS or AGPS to get your location.

The GPS process for users is simple. The GPS constellation–the collection of multiple satellites that provide GPS data–regularly sends positioning information.

When you turn on GPS, your device simply needs to receive information. That’s it. The GPS system performs a series of calculations based on time and signal health (ephemeris data), which your device can use to figure out its position.

The simplicity and robustness is one of the reasons that GPS is an important location device for areas struck by natural disasters.

There are a few advanced ways to use the GPS system. While most consumer GPS devices only receive data, missions and clients that lease GPS system time can perform more exact, specific, and robust calculations.

The satnav system in a car like the Tesla Model X relies on GPS for location information
Satnav systems like that in the Tesla Model X rely on GPS signals to accurately determine the position of the car.

Most people use AGPS, or Assisted Global Positioning System. Instead of going directly to a satellite, you use cellular data to “ping” or communicate with nearby towers.

With three or more towers nearby, your position can be triangulated–a direction-finding word overused in fiction the general public, but with a somewhat self-explanatory meaning. At least three towers will gauge your device’s position, then calculate together.

The series of calculations from triangulation over cell data usually uses less data than GPS. Even better, connecting to Wi-Fi can give even more information about your exact location.

What Devices Have GPS Support?

Most people use GPS with smartphones and navigation devices. Before smartphones became the norm, companies like TomTom and Garmin dominated the tracking world.

Navigation devices used GPS–as well as cellular data if you paid for a subscription–and their own in-house tracking systems to give information on your position. Along with downloadable maps and traffic updates, it was a reliable way to navigate.

Smartphones can do the job of old navigation devices much better, but that doesn’t mean old navigation devices are staying in the path. It’s just that most people don’t need a more powerful tracker.

Additionally, there are some very advanced smartphone apps like ATAK – the Android Tactical Assault Kit that use GPS and the phone’s processing power to provide location and situational awareness.

The Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) being used to send a message from a patrol vehicle.
The ATAK smartphone and tablet application utilizes GPS to provide advanced Situational Awareness. (US Air Force Photo)

If you plan on camping in remote areas without cellular signal, a personal navigation device is a great choice. However, it’s important to learn about what signals are available in certain areas.

Check coverage maps before traveling. If you’re going to specific areas, coverage maps will tell you not only where signals are available, but which cell providers are in the area.

If you’re going on a wild adventure, at least look up the general area. Mapping the area ahead of time can help you avoid areas with signal, or at least give reference points for getting back into signal range.

As automation and artificial intelligence become bigger parts of business, automated mobile machines include GPS as well. Whether it’s an automated cart in a warehouse or a drone delivering for big delivery companies, GPS can be used.

Just as your phone (or your GPS watch) uses GPS and AGPS, the actual GPS board or chip often has many other location services involved. This includes pre-programmed paths, but AI and automation can monitor traffic and offer better suggestions based on congestion.

This works for warehouses and delivery paths, but is also present in many navigation apps. The concept is simple; if an accident is reported in one area, but not another, automated systems can calculate delay and give you a time comparison.

If multiple areas have congestion, multiple delays can be compared with each other. As research and real life use continues, these systems will only get better at providing estimates that are accurate to the minute–if not the second.

What is GLONASS?

The United States of America’s GPS was the first of its kind, and GPS is like many trademarked names that have become generic terms.

GPS is not the name of every positioning system. In Russia, the GLONASS (Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema, or Global Navigation Satellite System)

GPS currently uses 31 satellites, while Russia’s GLONASS uses 24 satellites. This is always subject to change depending on need and mission changes, and the practical benefits are not as simple as “more is better”.

Secret or undocumented satellites could always be part of the constellation, and it’s not difficult to add a GPS-like function to other satellites. There isn’t an obvious benefit over one versus the other.

Since the general public and businesses either use both satellite constellations for the same general purposes, a basic performance level is all that most users care about. In modern smartphones, the ability to use multiple GPS-like services is available.

In Europe, the Galileo system performs the same function. There are a few higher accuracy options available via Galileo, since GPS reserves higher accuracy function for military and other government-related use.

China has a planned COMPASS system (also known as Beidou-2) for future launch.

The Future of GPS

The GPS system is constantly changing like any other system. Newer satellites and better capabilities are always on the horizon.

Satellites–like any other major technology–provide constant options for greater global benefit. Computers become smaller and more tasks can be performed, and the current GPS benefits for most users barely scratch the surface.

A Delta IV rocket launch to support the GPS III Magellan system
United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV GPS III Magellan rocket launches in the background of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse on August 22, 2019, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The GPS-III launched from Space Launch Complex-37 and represents the next step in modernizing the navigation network worldwide with a new generation of satellites to offer improved accuracy, better resiliency and a new signal for civil users. (U.S. Air Force photo by James Rainier)

In the future, GPS will provide more services that were previously restricted. This includes delivering higher accuracy and widening the footprint (available scanning area) that should make some areas easier to navigate.

While space exploration and navigation isn’t here yet, it’s a matter of if, not when. Allowing current and future space operations to navigate with Earth’s GPS as a beacon is a current capability that just needs more test missions.

The OCX ground control system will need to be completed in order to properly control, maintain, and update the GPS constellation. The ground station will be like the internet of GPS, allowing more data with more information.

Just as the internet was originally just a bunch of text with rudimentary images in its first decade, GPS can grow into a civilian-friendly tool for business, recreation, and all of the government/military functions used now.

For more information on GPS and other positioning details, contact a GPS technology expert.

A Defense Advance GPS Receiver (DAGR or "dagger") in use during a field exercise.
A Defense Advanced GPS Receiver (DAGR) handheld unit in use during a field training exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Matthew Gilmore)

References:

https://www.gps.gov/systems/gps/

https://huxley.wwu.edu/sal/gps-ephemeris-data

https://www.gps.gov/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrestrial_television

https://www.windowscentral.com/gps-vs-agps-quick-tutorial

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direction_finding

https://www.opensignal.com/networks

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_generic_and_genericized_trademarks

https://beebom.com/what-is-glonass-and-how-it-is-different-from-gps/

https://gis.stackexchange.com/questions/97/what-are-the-major-differences-between-gps-glonass-and-galileo

https://www.raytheon.com/capabilities/products/gps_ocx

https://www.hpe.com/us/en/insights/articles/the-future-of-gps-1907.html

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