Kickstarter Comes to GPS; Plus, Jammers and Field Technology Conference

September 4, 2013  - By

$2,000 for an RTK base and rover? Yes, it’s real. Well, at least it seems real.

For $2,000, you can order an RTK base and rover set named Piksi, including radios.

Photo: Piksi (Swift Navigation)  Piksi_rugged

It’s an intriguing opportunity, and might be the first brush stroke of the picture I’ve been painting (metaphorically speaking) for the past few years about inexpensive RTK receivers forthcoming. But, before you get really excited, read on.

Besides the attractive price, something else that makes Piksi interesting is the way the company is financed. The way that a typical company funds new product development is through its own cash flow or financing. The company designs and produces a product, then announces it to potential buyers (you), who then touch, feel and use the product to understand how it performs…all before making the decision to purchase. Piksi (Swift Navigation) doesn’t follow that model.

Piksi is using a new-age, crowd-sourced funding model called Kickstarter. With Kickstarter, a group of people (creators) offer to design and produce a certain product if they can recruit enough “investors” to fund their endeavor. The “investors” aren’t traditional venture capitalists, nor people who would own stock in said company. The investment is simply a commitment to buy the product based on the specifications provided by the creators, before the product is finished. If the company has enough commitments from “investors,” the creators commit to designing, building and delivering the product.

Furthermore, there are certain levels of investment available for Piksi, from $7 which will get you a Swift Navigation micro-USB cable, to $2,000, which will get you a ruggedized version of the complete RTK kit, including base, rover, XBee radios, Bluetooth and SD card storage. So far, Swift Navigation has raised $161,369 towards the project with today, September 4, being the last day. That’s far more than the $14,000 goal it set.

The caveat is that the product is not complete yet, at least the RTK portion. According to Swift Navigation:

We have already built a small batch of Piksi receivers that are ready to ship and have locked down all part sourcing and manufacturing for further batches, so there are unlikely to be any unanticipated delays in the delivery of Piksi hardware.

However, it’s difficult to know exactly how long the RTK functionality will take to implement — software development schedules seem to always run over their anticipated delivery dates, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. We feel the goals we’re proposing to accomplish with this campaign are reasonable — adding a new set of software functionality (which we successfully implemented on a previous platform) upon an existing base of stable hardware and software.

The gamble that the investor takes is that Swift will be able to finish the product, produce it, and meet the performance specifications. However, that’s only part of the battle. I spent better than 10 years of my life managing the design and production (somewhat) of GPS-based hardware and software for mapping and surveying. There are a million details. A major part of developing a hardware/software product like this is making it reliable. What I mean by reliable is that it behaves the same way every time you push the ON button, and works consistently and reliably all day until you press the OFF button. That’s not easy to achieve without a lot of sophisticated testing in different environments, and nothing can fix a poor reliability design (except a redesign).

The guys behind the Piksi don’t seem to be total GPS-rookies, but do lack substantial real-world experience. Click here and then click on Bios to read about their backgrounds. But who knows? Maybe that’s an advantage, not being conditioned to “follow the rules.”

One last note, and an important one. It’s only an L1 system, so don’t get too excited. L1 means that you really can’t use an RTK network (practically speaking) and that the baseline distance needs to be pretty short. The RTK initialization and re-initialization times will be measured in minutes, not seconds, and that’s assuming they get the RTK algorithms correct (and reliable).

Sorry to burst your bubble.

Actually, the concept of an inexpensive, bootstrapped L1 RTK system is not difficult to envision. The GPS OEM boards are readily available, as well as the GPS antennae, wireless comms and the rest of the components. At the risk of sounding pompous, I could put that kind of project together. The trickiest part of the project would be developing/implementing reliable RTK software.

No matter what, it will be interesting to hear about what these guys come up with. In the words of the late Steve Jobs, “stay hungry, stay foolish.”

GPS jammers are cheap, but don’t get caught using one.

Even though they are illegal to market, sell and operate in the U.S., Americans are buying cheap GPS jammers, via Internet stores, from companies operating outside of the U.S. Operating one of these devices in the U.S. is a risky venture (as you’ll read below).


Although they don’t seem to be a serious threat yet, they could become a threat as GPS receivers become more ubiquitous and concerns about privacy continue to ramp up.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for enforcing the U.S. laws enacted that prohibit the use of GPS jamming devices. If you look at the FCC’s enforcement history here, you’ll see that there isn’t much enforcement activity. However, a recent enforcement action was imposed on a guy in New Jersey who made the mistake of driving by the Newark International airport with his GPS jammer turned on. Uh oh. The FCC tracked down the offender and issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture that included a fine of nearly $32,000. Whoa, that’s a lot of dough. Wonder if he is trying to sue the company he bought it from? Not likely, as they are most certainly outside of the U.S. and out of reach of the U.S. judicial system. Caveat emptor.

You can be assured that if jamming reports increase, there will be more jamming detection and location equipment deployed to hold people accountable, like this new, handheld GPS jammer detector and locator from Chronos:


You might want to visit this GPS.GOV website on GPS jamming. It contains a lot of information about the U.S. regulations surrounding the marketing, sales and use of GPS (and cell phone) jamming devices.

Third annual Field Technology Conference


In 2010, I, along with two colleagues, put together a conference here in Portland, Oregon, and named it the Field Technology Conference. We created the conference to focus on geospatial technology hardware and software used in the field. It’s the essence of what a conference should be, a group of people gathering to share ideas of common interest. It’s mostly devoid of commercial interests, save a few really neat (and valuable) giveaways and a few exhibit booths. You probably haven’t heard about the conference because we have a very small marketing budget, and the organizers (three of us) can only spend a few hours a month brainstorming, finding speakers, and organizing the event.

This year, our third, will focus on existing and emerging technologies: GPS/GNSS, UAVs, 3D printing, mobile devices, imagery and geospatial software. Our outdoor demonstration area was very popular last year so we’ll offer that again, as well as a UAV demonstration. We’re also planning an on-site demonstration of 3D printing. Can you imagine 3D printing a topographic survey?

Something new this year is our association with the CGSIC (Civil GPS Service Interface Committee). CGSIC is co-locating a regional event with our conference. What that means is that speakers from the U.S. government (Air Force, State Deptartment, DOT, etc.) will make GPS-centric presentations. CGSIC events are the only live communication channel between the U.S. Air Force GPS operations personnel and civilian GPS users. This is your chance to ask Air Force personnel questions, in person, that you’ve always wanted to know about GPS. If you’re unable to travel to Portland for the conference (October 23-24), GPS World magazine is planning on streaming the CGSIC presentations live over the Internet, as well as posting the recording on its website.

Although the conference is organized by the Western Forestry and Conservation Association (which organizes a lot of conferences), take a look at the agenda and you’ll see the content will be of interest to anyone involved with geospatial data collection and processing technology, not just foresters and environmental scientists. For conference details, click here.

Thanks, and see you next month.

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About the Author: Eric Gakstatter

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as consulted with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributor to GPS World magazine, serving as editor of the monthly Survey Scene newsletter until 2015, and as editor of Geospatial Solutions monthly newsletter for GPS World's sister site Geospatial Solutions, which focuses on GIS and geospatial technologies.