Our insatiable appetite for GPS

September 3, 2020  - By
1976: The first military GPS five-channel receiver built in one of several programs that studied the feasibility of GPS. The receiver weighed more than 270 pounds and had seats for two operators. (Photo: Rockwell Collins/Smithsonian)

1976: The first military GPS five-channel receiver built in one of several programs that studied the feasibility of GPS. The receiver weighed more than 270 pounds and had seats for two operators. (Photo: Rockwell Collins/Smithsonian)

Like the internet before it, GPS started as a niche technology and became a universally recognized one, though much misunderstood and often taken for granted. Both systems originated in the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to support military missions, and then exploded into mass-market civilian technologies. While the internet passed from military to civilian hands very early in its history, GPS is still operated by the U.S. Air Force, making it a unique experience for the DOD: a system for which it is responsible that has orders of magnitude more civilian applications and users than military ones.

GPS has transformed entire professions — most notably, surveying; created new industries — such as ride sharing; boosted innumerable fields of scientific research — from archaeology to zoology; facilitated many aspects of everyday life — such as finding retail outlets and getting there; and given an advantage to U.S. military forces. One application discussed 30 years ago that has not yet lived up to its promised return on investment is precision agriculture.

Challenges and debates that loomed large in the early days turned out to be growing pains —most notably, Selective Availability (SA). In 1990, Javad Ashjaee reflected the attitude of much of the GPS industry and user community when he said, “I can’t think of a word to say how bad it is.” Other debates have proven more persistent — such as the interference threat posed by LightSquared, reborn after bankruptcy as Ligado Networks.

GPS first drew considerable publicity in the wake of Desert Storm, when it became the subject of television features, newspaper reports, and special sections in the pages of recreational catalogs. “Ironically,” Brad Parkinson pointed out in September 1994 in GPS World, “civil companies [such as Garmin] developed most receivers used in Desert Storm, with no help from military sponsorship.” Later that decade, while most people were finally aware of GPS technology, it began disappearing deep into its applications and the systems that use it.

In September 1991 — three and a half years before U.S. Air Force Space Command declared the system’s full operational capability (FOC) on April 27, 1995 — in a speech to the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal former FAA Administrator James B. Busey said: “I want to emphasize that we fully support the eventual replacement of [GPS] by other systems — and we are certain that will happen.” That may still happen, in the distant future. However, what Busey did not foresee is that GPS became but an element, though a key one, in a much larger positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) system. This worldwide system includes three other GNSS and two regional ones, several publicly and privately operated augmentation services, and a wide range of complementary and alternative technologies. These include inertial navigation (which has advanced much in the past three decades) and RF signals of opportunity. It may soon include navigation signals from non-GNSS satellites, eLoran, enhanced distance measuring equipment, and Earth-fixed navigation using very low frequency.

I began my current career in geospatial technologies exactly 20 years ago, as this magazine’s managing editor, just a few months after the end of SA increased GPS’ accuracy by an order of magnitude, and equally expanded the number of its potential applications. Yet today, I still marvel at how pervasive this technology has become and how much further it will transform our lives.

I will end with a quote from an early GPS World columnist, Hale Montgomery, who wrote in October 1991, “GPS users show an insatiable appetite for ever more precise data. Give them a mile and they want an inch.”

Seeking back issues: I have the entire collection of GPS World’s print edition, except for the first issue, the 10 issues in the second year (1991), and the September through December 1993 issues. I would be thrilled to receive those missing issues, or facsimiles, from anybody who has them. Email mluccio@northcoastmedia.net.

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at mluccio@northcoastmedia.net or 541-543-0525.