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GPS: Obscurity to ubiquity

September 18, 2020  - By
Headshot: Stuart Riley

Stuart Riley, vice president of GNSS technology, Trimble

Over the past 30 years, GPS World has been at the forefront of the transition of GPS from obscure technology to ubiquitous utility. The magazine was first published before the satellite constellation achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC). In fact, it preceded Operation Desert Storm, which created unprecedented publicity and demand for GPS equipment; and has documented a period of unprecedented increase in the rate of change in the technical disciplines.

Thirty years after the Wright brothers’ initial flight, commercial air travel remained expensive, uncomfortable, and available to relatively few people. Compare that to GPS and GNSS — in 30 years the technology has moved from 50-pound receivers powered by car batteries to residing in the pockets and on the wrists of billions of people.

In 1978, the year the first GPS Block-I satellite was launched, Trimble was founded. Trimble’s first product was a Loran receiver in 1980, followed by the world’s first commercial GPS product in 1984. The year the magazine was launched, Trimble became the first publicly traded GPS company in 1990. Positioning technology is in Trimble’s DNA and the foundation for helping transform industries such as construction, agriculture, transportation, geospatial and more.

Two factors drove GPS from obsurity to ubiquity: Rapid technological advances (electronics, software, communications, and increasing numbers of satellites) combined with innovations using positioning to benefit large numbers of users across disparate applications. Think of it as “Moore’s Law meets market demand.”

A Malaysian tribe and the Trimble 4000SLD, the first kinematic “backpack” GPS receiver. Weighing 44 lbs. without batteries, the receiver was introduced in 1988. (Photo: Trimble)

A Malaysian tribe and the Trimble 4000SLD, the first kinematic “backpack” GPS receiver. Weighing 44 lbs. without batteries, the receiver was introduced in 1988. (Photo: Trimble)

The key to GNSS’s growth is its adaptability. By serving a broad range of industries, GNSS manufacturers addressed widely differing needs for precision, form factors, interfacing, and availability of positions. The markets drove the development of more-capable and cost-efficient solutions and injected varying requirements for performance and functionality.

Recent advances illustrate the ability of GNSS technology to react to market needs. Satellite-delivered PPP corrections enable users to achieve real-time centimeter accuracy with fast convergence time almost anywhere on Earth. Low-cost, high-performance inertial sensors boost performance in challenging environments. Software-defined high-precision GNSS receivers, coupled with augmented reality on consumer devices (phones and tablets), open the door to innovation in as-yet-undiscovered directions.

GNSS is playing a key role in a broad range of applications. For example, compact, high-precision receivers are transforming work by delivering higher levels of productivity, reliability, safety and flexibility in industries including automobile and trucking, precision farming, and earthworks and construction. Future applications are expected to increasingly integrate GNSS with other sensors to drive productivity and safety for autonomous applications.

It took less than 30 years to move from static post-processed positioning to holding centimeter precision in your hand. For those of us who experienced the early days, GNSS has changed the world in ways we never imagined. The next three decades will see GNSS embedded into applications unimaginable today.

And to GPS World: Congratulations and thank you for 30 great years of pioneering the education, awareness, and promotion of the GNSS industry.