Marconi Prize for 2016 goes to Brad Parkinson

May 31, 2016  - By
Brad Parkinson

Brad Parkinson

The Marconi Society has awarded its 2016 Marconi Prize to Bradford Parkinson. The $100,000 prize, given annually, recognizes major advances in the field of information and communication science which benefit humanity.

Parkinson’s contributions to the development of GPS helped create the vast global utility that provides positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) information to the world and is a vital part of today’s global information infrastructure. The early stages of GPS were very nearly derailed and the U.S. Air Force might have abandoned its development had it not been forced to fund it. In a historic decision, the Air Force selected a project leader uniquely qualified to make it a success.

A Bit of History. Lt. General Kenneth Schultz, Space and Missile System Office (SAMSO) Commander, called Colonel Parkinson to his office in November, 1972. The General’s purpose was to discuss a floundering USAF program called 621B, which was attempting to create a global navigation service using satellites. Parkinson wasn’t interested. “I already had a super job with a hundred million dollars of play money every year that I could spend on anything related to ballistic missile re-entry,” he recalls.  Meanwhile, the incipient GPS program was mired in technical challenges and in competition with other ideas within the Dept. of Defense.

The General insisted. Parkinson, a rising star and perhaps the top military expert on inertial navigation, had one question. If he accepted the assignment, would he be in charge of it? When the General said, “I can’t promise that,” Parkinson said, “Then I don’t volunteer.”

Fortunately, Schultz went ahead anyway. By the time Parkinson was ten feet out the door, the General had called personnel and initiated his transfer — in the process giving the young colonel the authority he had requested.  With sinking heart, Parkinson realized he had inherited a lot of good underlying thinking, but so much infighting that the program had ground to a halt.

Parkinson’s career had prepared him for this project, from his study of navigation at the U.S. Naval Academy to his Master of Science study at MIT, at a time when Charles Draper was making his mark on inertial navigation, to his subsequent PhD research at Stanford University. Parkinson had taught future astronauts about satellite design and operations, and he understood navigation from the inside, as a mission commander flying combat sorties in Southeast Asia.

An Amazing Coincidence. In what Parkinson calls “an amazing coincidence,” Dr. Mal Currie, the senior person in the Dept. of Defense for development, had just been appointed and was moving to Washington from Los Angeles. However, he needed to travel back and forth to Los Angeles for several weekends to organize his family’s move. To make it official, he would stop by the Space and Missile Systems Office for a briefing each weekend.  General Schultz soon ran out of top-level discussion topics, so someone had the bright idea to send Dr. Currie down to discuss 621B with Parkinson.

“Here I am, a brand new colonel, given uninterrupted time with the senior-most development leader in the whole Defense Department, about five levels above me, and I have all afternoon. He is brilliant; he is a nuclear physicist. We soon got down to technical stuff. I brought out this big stack of charts and a small projector, using the wall as a screen,” Parkinson remembers. By the end of the afternoon, Parkinson had convinced Currie that GPS was a great idea. It just needed tweaking.

With Currie’s support, Parkinson kept plugging. He requested — and got — some of the brightest minds in the Air Force to help him. He encountered opposition everywhere, even veiled threats. Finally, in August of 1973 he stood before a sea of DoD General officers and officials in Washington.  He presented GPS as it then stood, for a thumbs up or down vote. It was thumbs down. The Air Force preferred to build more planes.

Currie, who had chaired the meeting, immediately called Parkinson to his office. “You and I know you inherited this program, but there are some improvements you can make. I’d like you to make those improvements and come right back to another decision meeting,” Currie said.

Lonely Halls Meeting. Parkinson gathered a small group of his brightest team members. They met not in Los Angeles, where the group was based, but in the deserted Pentagon, over Labor Day weekend. The only occupants of the largest office building in the world were Parkinson’s band in a 5th floor conference room.

They worked nonstop to change the proposal. The 621B fundamentals were sound, but several technical details had to be modulated to make it the GPS we know today. The team confirmed the use of the then-unique digital signal structure called code-division multiple-access (CDMA) that had been tested by 621B. This allowed the signals used by all the satellites to broadcast on the same frequency and insured that location precision (eventually to millimeters) could be achieved. Equally important, they decided every satellite had to carry redundant atomic clocks, so that signal timing was accurate even when on the other side of the world. Use of such clocks had been advocated by both 621B and the Navy.

They also confirmed the over-all GPS system concept from 621B: the user would measure the range to four satellites, with knowledge of the exact time they broadcast their signal and their location, then the user could triangulate the receiver’s position as well as determine time to nanoseconds. GPS was built on this premise.

Parkinson went back to Currie with his revised proposal in December 1973, and this time received thumbs up. Just 44 months after contract award the Air Force launched the first GPS satellite — probably a record for any military program. Today, 30 operational GPS satellites circle the planet.

For Parkinson’s own account of these events, see The Origins of GPS, and the Pioneers Who Launched the System (Part 1), and The Origins of GPS, Fighting to Survive (Part 2).

After retiring from military service as an Air Force colonel, Parkinson inspired a new generation of GPS scientists at Stanford, where he is a now a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and other leading engineering schools, helping push hundreds of enhancements and new applications. At his Research Center, he and his allied faculty and students developed the concept and first demonstration of the FAA’s now-operational GPS integrity system, called WAAS.  With his students (and sponsored by John Deere) they demonstrated the first GPS auto-guided farm tractor, now an $800 million world-wide GPS farming business.  In 1992 they demonstrated the first  completely blind landing of a commercial airline (and repeated it for 110 landings!).

“Today, there are billions of GPS receivers in the world,” says Marconi Society Vice Chairman Vint Cerf, “GPS is one of the most under-rated advances in the history of information science.  It’s taken for granted, but Parkinson was on the ground floor of enabling air, space and terrestrial guidance and navigation with GPS. His vision for the use of timing signals resulted in cellular telephone improvements, better Internet traffic control, power grid management and a myriad of important financial applications. Dr. Parkinson’s achievements have been game-changing.”

“With immense dedication, Dr. Parkinson overcame technical and bureaucratic obstacles in order to champion the early development, and later enhancement through modernization, of GPS,” said Dr. Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We now take for granted GPS technology, whether our phone is providing turn-by-turn directions or enjoying GPS-time-synchronized communications. However, the concept of using an orbiting spacecraft’s transmitting radio signals as a solution for all-weather global navigation (positioning and timing) faced enormous obstacles during its development phase in the 1970s. As the program director for the Air Force, Dr. Parkinson and his fellow engineers were pushing the state of the art.”

Parkinson will receive the Marconi Prize at a private ceremony at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, on November 2, 2016. He joins a select group of scientists whose work in communications and information technology has led to major advances and provided social, economic and cultural benefits for humanity. Past winners of the prize, established in 1975 by Gioia Marconi Braga, daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, have included Internet pioneers Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn and Len Kleinrock, digital trailblazers Irwin Jacobs and Henry Samueli, encryption pioneers Ron Rivest, Marty Hellman and Whit Diffie, MIMO inventor A. J. Paulraj and cell phone pioneer Marty Cooper, among others.

GPS World is indebted to Ken Pesyna, a 2015 recipient of the Marconi Society’s Young Scholar award, for bringing this story to our attention. Pesyna co-authored the February 2015 cover story, “Accuracy in the Palm of Your Hand” and is currently CTO and co-founder at Radiosense.

The Marconi Society was established in 1974 through an endowment set up by Gioia Marconi Braga, daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, the Nobel laureate who invented radio (wireless telegraphy). It is best known for the Marconi Prize, awarded annually to an outstanding individual/s whose scope of work and influence emulate the principle of “creativity in service to humanity” that inspired Marconi. Through symposia, conferences, forums and publications, the Marconi Society promotes awareness of major innovations in communication theory, technology and applications with particular attention to understanding how they change and benefit society.

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About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.