Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


New Developments in GPS and Geo-Location for Mobile Technology

Posted on | March 25, 2013 | No Comments

The ubiquity of mobile devices has focused renewed attention on the Global Positioning Satellite System (GPS), the configuration of space-based vehicles that is used to provide location data to GPS Satellitesusers through their hand-carried mobile phones and tablets. GPS technologies were developed for use in aircraft, land vehicles, and ships. More recently, they have become crucial technologies for a wide variety of mobile devices. Global positioning has been primarily used for location tracking and turn-by-turn direction services, but what has become extraordinary are the new value-added services that continue to be built on the basic capabilities of this space-based system that runs 24/7, through all weather conditions, and can reach an unlimited number of users.

Why GPS? While locations for mobile technology can be determined by using cell towers, this data is less accurate than GPS. Approximate positions can determined from cell towers based on the angle of approach, the strength of signals, and the time it takes for the signal to reach various towers. However, mountains and other physical obstructions such as forests and buildings can interfere with location determination. These impediments can also interfere with GPS signals, but more options exist as only 3 of the 27 satellites are needed to determine a fairly accurate position.

The United States started the GPS program in the 1970s after the Cold War’s “Space Race” refined satellite and rocket launching capabilities to make them efficient and reliable. GPS was originally developed by the military and proved to be decisive in the first Gulf War when it enabled Allied troops to bypass Iraqi fortifications by venturing far into the featureless desert to outflank them. It has also been used for search and rescue operations and to provide targeting information and missile guidance as well as mapping strategic areas for facilities management and military engagement.

The basic GPS infrastructure consists of three major segments: the space segment (SS) consisting of 27 satellites that orbit the planet every 12 hours and transmit time-encoded information; the control segment (CS) that monitors and directs the satellites from the ground; and a user segment (US) that picks up signals from the system and produces useful information. The GPS satellites broadcast signals from space that are ‘triangulated’ by the user devices, although the more satellite signals that are accessed, the better the coordinate information.

Devices such automobile GPS systems and GPS dog-tracking collars produce three-dimensional location information (latitude, longitude, and altitude) as well as the current time from the transmitted signals. Assisted GPS however, which is used with Apple’s iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad, combines standard GPS data with information derived from cellular towers and known Wi-fi spots for faster and more accurate readings.

The United States’ Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) required all phone manufacturers, service providers and PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points) to comply with specifications for their Enhanced 911 (E911) program by the end of 2005. This required all cell phones to transmit their phone number and location when dialing 911. More recently, it strengthened 911 requirements for all mobile devices and new location accuracy rules for wireless carriers.

While GPS is currently the dominant provider of position data, other countries have been working on their own global positioning systems. Europe is testing its Galileo system, and China is working on the BeiDou system. The US has liberally allowed the use of their GPS system around the world and has voiced objections to these alternatives, as they might be used for military purposes against US interests.

The Russian GLONASS, an acronym for GLObalnaya Navigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema, is the most immediate Glonass-M spacecraftcomplement/competitor to the US GPS. Development of GLONASS began in response to GPS in the mid-1970s during the Cold War. It was given a new impetus during the presidency of Vladimir Putin, who substantially increased funding for the Russian Federal Space Agency. That did not stop three GLONASS-M satellites from falling into the Pacific Ocean in December of 2010, forcing the Russian government to use backup satellites. GLONASS is now operational, and both complements as well as provides an alternative to the United States’ GPS.

Mobile devices have started to use the Russian GLONASS system for improved accuracy. Qualcomm was one of the first to develop chipsets that boost positioning performance with GLONASS signals. GPS with GLONASS can track not only the frequencies of all 27 GPS satellites, it can also receive the signals from the 24 GLONASS positioning satellites as well. Together they provide global coverage and superior precision.

The beauty of this government-developed and managed infrastructure is that it has enabled a wide variety of user segment devices that transform the satellite signals into productive information. GPS technology has unleashed a wave of product innovation that has become a somewhat unheralded percentage of the modern technology economy. The satellites emit a set of rather continuous navigation signals while the user segment equipment with embedded microprocessor chips and display technology provides the site of creativity. The result has been a wave of user segment equipment that allow a span of applications from vehicle fleet management, stolen car recovery, and even the tracking of cheating spouses and Alzheimer patients.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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