Welcome to GPS World’s Survey & Construction Newsletter

March 22, 2006  - By
Image: GPS World

Hello, and welcome to the first issue of GPS World’s Survey & Construction Newsletter. You are encouraged to forward this email to your colleagues, and they in turn are encouraged to sign up for their own — free — subscription.

I’m Eric Gakstatter (egakstatter@questex.com), your editor on this resource for the survey and construction communities. I’ve spent the past 16 years in the GPS survey/mapping industry using many brands of GPS equipment and software. My first ten years in GPS were spent as a product manager and the last six years as a GPS user and consultant. I’m a non-partisan advocate for the GPS user community.

The first subject I’ve selected to discuss with you is the FAA’s WAAS program because of the recent and significant changes that have taken place in this program.


WAAS is one of the most widely misunderstood GPS technologies of today in the survey/mapping marketplace. Recent WAAS broadcasting satellite launches and a WAAS broadcasting satellite relocation along with vague press releases have further muddied the waters. In the interest of panic-relief for survey/mapping WAAS users, a more prudent, in-depth explanation is warranted.

Recently, I was on a construction site for a project I’m involved with. It was a park-like setting with a lot of drainage and irrigation being laid. From the beginning, I knew the job superintendent was very comfortable with technology. The younger, lean fellow spoke efficiently, carried a laptop and seemed on top of his game when questioned by various owner’s reps and sub-contractors….he even carried a hand-held GPS mapping receiver that he used to map various structures installed throughout the project.

Of course, I had to talk with him about his thoughts and perceptions of GPS. A part of the conversation went as follows:

Me: How accurate has that unit been for you?

Him: Very accurate. Do you see that little airplane on the screen (he points at the screen)?

Me (looking at his screen and trying to figure out what he’s talking about): Oh, yes.

Him: That means there’s an AWACS airplane flying near here sending me corrections. You know, the military airplane with the big antenna on it?

I sighed deeply as the image my mind had built of this young, high-tech construction superintendent faded away.

That “little airplane” on the screen he was referring to was an indicator that his GPS receiver was using corrections from a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) satellite.

WAAS is perhaps one of the most widely misunderstood GPS technologies of today in the survey/mapping marketplace and the above conversation is a typical example.

Further complicating this is the recent announcement by the FAA that WAAS in the northeastern US and Eastern Canada may be significantly affected by the relocation of AOR-W (the US east coast WAAS broadcasting satellite) before the new PanAmSat will be considered fully operational in Fall 2006. See the FAA announcement at http://gps.faa.gov/programs/waas/non-aviationUsers.htm.

The FAA announcement set off a panic in some organizations that had recently implemented a significant number of high performance, WAAS-enabled mapping receivers to replace legacy GPS mapping units that used post-processing and the Coast Guard NDGPS system. These organizations based their decisions on performance tests completed last year before anyone knew that AOR-W was going to relocate to 142W longitude instead of 98W longitude as originally announced.

The rest of the story…

First of all, two new WAAS broadcasting satellites were launched last Fall. One of them (PanAmSat at 133W longitude) began broadcasting in test mode with corrections full-time this month (March). It is expected that the other (Telesat at 107W longitude) is scheduled to begin broadcasting test mode with corrections full-time on or around April 1, 2006. The FAA announcement does not take into account either of these broadcasting satellites.

If these test signals are considered, there will be no degradation in WAAS visibility. In fact, users in the Northeastern US and Eastern Canada will enjoy dual WAAS satellite coverage. For example, in Montreal, Quebec the two new WAAS broadcasting satellites will be visible at ~28 degrees and ~12 degrees above the horizon. Before the AOR-W relocation, it was the only WAAS satellite visible and it was at ~36 degrees above the horizon.

WAAS satellite visibility in the central and western US, Mexico and western Canada has improved dramatically in the past 60 days with the new test signals and relocation of AOR-W. For example, in Portland, Oregon, WAAS satellite POR is visible at ~12 degrees above the horizon. The two new WAAS broadcasting satellites and relocation of AOR-W to 142 degrees west longitude now means that three additional WAAS satellites will be visible at ~32 degrees, ~36 degrees, and ~35 degrees above the horizon in the Pacific Northwest.

The caveat is that the FAA won’t certify the accuracy/reliability of the new WAAS broadcasting satellites for quite some time after extensive testing. Until that time, non-aviation receivers are free to use the test mode signals at their discretion. This is the same mode that WAAS was operating in prior to it’s July 2003 commissioning. Also, your non-aviation WAAS receiver may or may not be configured to use the new test signals. You should check with the manufacturer of your unit.

Well, I didn’t have the heart to tell him then there weren’t any AWACS airplanes sending him corrections (although I did tell him later). It’s just one more example I’ve encountered of the misinformation floating around about WAAS among survey/mapping professionals. There is not enough space in this issue to debate the advantages/disadvantages of WAAS for survey/mapping usage, but don’t be so quick to dismiss the technology before you fully investigate it’s performance and consider the recent developments.

This article is tagged with and posted in Opinions, Survey