Always Find Your Way with GPS

Summer 2004 CSANews Issue 51  |  Posted date : May 10, 2007.Back to list

The world is ever-changing with new technologies coming to market to offer new products and services that will make life simpler, more exciting and safer. One of my associates has a new BMW with the on-board mapping system. He can set a destination, start driving and the on-board GPS-based mapping system will guide him to his destination, all the while displaying a map showing the location of the car and offering a wealth of information.

We’ve all seen movies in which secret agents, and for that matter villains, use cool technologies (developed by some guy named “Q”) to locate, identify and track their targets. These technologies certainly exist today. The only barrier to their widespread use was cost. As each day goes by, some pretty smart folks continue to make products and services better, faster, smaller and cheaper. GPS location equipment used to be expensive and unpractical (large). Today, GPS devices come as small as cell phones and are almost as cheap. They are targeted at boaters, fishermen, hikers and any other person who has a desire to get from point A to B, or to answer that age-old question…Where the hell am I?

When we talk about "a GPS," we are generally referring to a GPS receiver, which is yours for a few hundred dollars or, if purchased as an option in your new car, a few thousand. Regardless, the goal is to deliver location information and to position you on a map. While the presentations can be simple and eloquent, the underlying technology that makes it possible is not.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is actually a constellation of 27 Earth-orbiting satellites (24 in operation and three extras in case one fails). The U.S. military developed and implemented this satellite network for its exclusive use as a military navigation system, but soon opened it up to the world. Each of these 3,000- to 4,000-pound solar-powered satellites circles the globe at about 12,000 MPH, making two complete rotations every day. The orbits are arranged so that at any time, anywhere on Earth, there are at least four satellites "visible" in the sky.

A GPS receiver's job is to locate four or more of these satellites, figure out the distance to each, and use this information to determine its own location on earth. This operation is based on a simple mathematical principle called trilateration. A simple explanation of this concept/calculation is to determine two things:

  • The location of at least three orbiting GPS satellites, and
  • The distance between them and you.

The GPS receiver makes the calculations by analyzing high-frequency, low-power radio signals from the GPS satellites and voila…you are here.

A standard GPS receiver will not only place you on a map at any particular location, but will also trace your path across a map as you move. In constant communication with GPS satellites, a GPS receiver will trace your route throughout your entire trip and offer some helpful/additional/extra/useless (choose one) information:

  • How far you've travelled (odometer)
  • How long you've been travelling
  • Your current speed (speedometer)
  • Your average speed
  • A "bread crumb" trail showing your route on the map
  • The estimated time of arrival at your destination, if you maintain your current average speed.

To obtain this last piece of information, you would have to have given the receiver the co-ordinates of your destination. This gives new meaning to a travel companion while en route to your winter residence. In the case of the BMW which I mentioned earlier, you are automatically guided with turn-by-turn directions and voice prompts to get you to your destination. No having to second-guess your navigator (not that you or I do that).

Where is this technology heading?
Research is in the works to develop implantable health-monitoring systems which track someone’s location and health and report that information back to a monitoring centre. These implantable chips will be equipped with bio-sensors that measure critical medical data, including body temperature and pulse. The tiny antenna attached to the chip will capture this data and transmit it to Web-enabled ground stations, to be monitored by doctors. The chip will be powered by a micro-battery that recharges itself using body-heat energy. WOW!

The hope for these inventions is that they will be used for good. Is it possible that at some point, governments will implant immigrants with location devices to track their journeys – yes/no/maybe. This is already being used to locate lost pets, track endangered wildlife and manage farm animals. We’re all travellers, maybe they should use this technology to find lost luggage. Maybe this is a better way for the postal service to track their packages.
Maybe George Orwell’s book should have been entitled “2014.” Somewhere in this location-tracking technology, there may be a “Big Brother.”