Leadership Awards 2012: Real-Time Kinematic in Your Palm

December 1, 2012  - By
Image: GPS World

Technology to Be Cheap and Pervasive by 2020

Editor’s Note: This article reproduces the acceptance speeches given by the winners of GPS World’s 2012 Leadership Awards, at the Leadership Dinner in Nashville in September. The Leadership Dinner was sponsored by Lockheed Martin and Deimos Space.

Remarks by Todd Humphreys, Radionavigation Laboratory (director), University of Texas at Austin (assistant professor), winner in the Signals category. He is the leader of several seminal studies on spoofing and jamming, and he testified this summer before Congress on the subject.


It’s a genuine honor to receive this award. I’d like to thank Alan Cameron and all the contributors to GPS World. GPS World plays an essential role in building our GNSS community and keeping it together, providing GNSS news, instruction, and, indispensably, gossip!

I’d also like to thank my students at the University of Texas Radionavigation Lab. Much of the credit for this award goes to them.

The futurist Ray Kurzweil spoke at a conference I attended back in 2001. Maybe some of you have heard of Ray. He’s regarded variously as a prophet, or a crackpot. He’s taking hundreds of vitamins every day to keep himself alive until the singularity arrives, at which point he’ll download himself onto a robot and live forever, or at least he’ll have his head cryogenically frozen so that he can be downloaded and live forever later on.

In that 2001 talk, Ray made some bold predictions. One, in particular, I remember well. “Within the decade,” Ray assured us, “we’ll all be wearing special contact lenses that give us a permanant Internet feed directly to our eyeballs.”

Nonsense, I thought, and indeed it was nonsense. Here we are in 2012 and no such contact lenses exist, nevermind their being in widespread use.

I resolved back then that if I were ever called on to peer into the future and tell what I see, as Alan has asked me to do tonight, I’d be more modest about it.

So tonight I’m going to make a modest prediction, and only one of them. I predict that by the GPS World dinner in 2020, carrier-phase differential GNSS, or, if you prefer an adjective for what should be a noun, Real-Time Kinematic, will be cheap and pervasive. We’ll have it on our cell phones and our tablets. There will be app families devoted to decimeter- and centimeter-level accuracy. The consequences will be fantastic. And this will be enormously disruptive to the current precision navigation industry. This will be the commoditization of centimeter-level GNSS.

Now you may very well object to this prediction. You might point out that integer ambiguities will be difficult to resolve in the face of the near-field effects around and poor placement of the GNSS antenna in handheld units. You might also argue that the increased power requirements of carrier-phase techniques will be a dealbreaker for mobile devices. That’s all fine. I agree that those are hard problems. My students and I are looking into them, trying to overcome them.

But please don’t make as one of your objections the one that I’ve heard so many times: “Why would anyone ever want centimeter-accurate positioning in their cell phone?” Because I’ll object that your objection lacks imagination.

To see one example of what could be done with commoditized centimeter-accurate GNSS, I invite you all to a presentation by my students Daniel Shepard, Ken Pesyna, and Jahshan Bhatti tomorrow in the F5 Session (Millimeter-accurate Augmented Reality Enabled by Carrier-Phase Differential GPS). They’ll show off a crude box that we’ve built, through which, if you peer, you can see a sandcastle that’s not really there. And you can walk around the sandcastle and see it from all sides with centimeter accuracy.

Imagine when this technology is in our tablets! Or, better yet, when it’s in our glasses — or, I suppose, our contact lenses. Not that I’m making any predictions about contact lenses.

[Ed. For a short video demonstration of the RTK-enabled augmented reality box built by Todd Humphreys’ students, visit this site.]

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