What’s Going to Happen When High-Accuracy GPS is Cheap?

June 3, 2010  - By
Image: GPS World

Last week, as you may have heard given the multiple launch delays, the United Launch Alliance (a Lockheed and Boeing joint venture), under contract with the U.S. Air Force, successfully rocketed a new GPS satellite into orbit.

The GPS satellite launched into orbit last week wasn’t just any other GPS satellite. It was the first of a new generation of GPS satellites that are going to change the way surveying, engineering and construction data is collected and processed in the future. Its new features are going to profoundly transform surveying, engineering and construction. I’m not exaggerating.

Before you stop reading because you think you’ve read this already in my other newsletter, Geospatial Solutions Weekly released earlier this week, hang in there because although some of it is the same, I’ve added some surveying-specific comments.

First of all, it’s important to understand that this is going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, but rather when. What I mean is the price of high-accuracy GPS is going to be very inexpensive, both horizontal and vertical, and it’s going to dramatically affect your business.

Here’s why.

The new L5 signal will eventually (when it’s being broadcast from enough satellites – more on that later) significantly transform GPS receivers in two ways:

  1. It will result in high-accuracy GPS receivers being much cheaper and smaller.
  2. It will make collecting high-accuracy GPS data much more convenient for the average person.

Let’s examine in more detail.

Why will high-accuracy GPS receivers be cheaper and smaller?

Today’s GPS dual-frequency receivers (L1/L2) can achieve a high level of accuracy (1 cm) in a short period of time, as little as a few seconds. But, they are expensive. An entry-level GPS dual-frequency receiver is a few thousand U.S. dollars. The primary reason is because there is a limited number of companies that design GPS dual-frequency receivers for surveying, maybe a dozen or so. Why is there a limited number of manufacturers? The answer is because the original L2 was not an open signal. In the 1980s, some very smart engineers figured out how to utilize L2 (designed for military use only) in commercial receivers. When they developed those techniques, the companies were smart enough to patent them. There are so many patents in place that it makes it very difficult for a new designer to enter the traditional GPS dual-frequency market, whether it’s surveying, machine control, GIS, or whatever.

Unlike the original L2, L5 is an open signal. Its specification is published for anyone to use. No license fee. No receiver tax. Nothing.

Without any patent blocks, any company in the world is free to develop a GPS dual-frequency (L1/L5) receiver that would be just as accurate, and arguably more accurate, than today’s L1/L2 GPS dual-frequency receivers.

Looking back on the history of electronics, within and outside the GPS industry, we know that increased competition usually results in lower prices to the consumer and improved product quality.

Take, for example, GPS L1 receiver chips used in personal navigation devices and mobile phones. Those chips are available today for less than $3 each. Fifteen years ago, much less powerful GPS L1 receivers were $200 each and 10 times larger.

Mark my words: you will see a similar trend with high accuracy GPS dual-frequency receivers. GPS dual-frequency receivers will be sold at prices you can’t imagine today, allowing surveyors, engineers, contractors, GIS folks, biologists, ecologists, etc. (and an educated general public) to collect high-accuracy data (horizontal and vertical) very inexpensively.

The only thing holding this trend back is the availability of L5. It needs to be broadcast by  about 24 GPS satellites. That’s going to happen somewhere between 2018 and 2020. Of course, GPS designers will be working on their receivers long before that.

Why will collecting high-accuracy GPS data be much more convenient for the average person?

First of all, the cost of high-accuracy GPS dual-frequency receivers will plummet significantly due to the open L5 signal. This will spur a fantastic amount of innovation and competition among a large number of receiver designers, especially in the consumer electronics market. Surveyors, engineer, contractors, GIS folks, etc. will benefit greatly from the consumer electronics industry because the high volumes in the consumer market will further spur innovation and cost reduction.

Oddly enough, at that time, the most expensive part of a high-accuracy GPS receiver may be the antenna. The consumer electronics market won’t accept the type of high-accuracy GPS antenna we need (too big/bulky), so the limited number of antennas means you’ll pay a higher price, maybe a $100, maybe $200.

If you have a minute, you might want to browse this article by Dr. Frank van Diggelen. Essentially, he says that consumer GPS receivers in your mobile phone, PND, etc. can be as accurate as a GPS receivers built for high-accuracy surveying. The reason they aren’t, he says, is due largely to the inferior antenna being used in mobile phones, PNDs, etc. Now, I’m not saying I buy everything he’s writing, but he’s a lot smarter than I am with regards to GPS, and I do have enough experience to know that antennas can make a big difference in receiver performance.

What you’ll see, eventually, is GPS dual-frequency (L1/L5) receiver technology in consumer electronics, which means high-accuracy positioning at consumer prices. Take it a step further and one can make the statement that high-accuracy positioning will be in the hands of the consumer. A knowledgeable consumer will be able to take a  low-cost, high-accuracy GPS dual-frequency receiver and collect (or have others collect) an amazing amount of valuable data (think high-accuracy vertical) that would otherwise be too expensive to collect using today’s technology.

That is where we are headed, guaranteed.


Other GNSS

The time-frame estimation I made above (2018-2020) for a full (24-satellite) constellation of GPS satellites broadcasting L5 is based solely on the activities of the U.S. government. Keep in mind that the U.S. government can’t exceed the 2020 deadline because December 31, 2020, is when the U.S. Air Force says it will stop supporting legacy GPS L1/L2 dual-frequency receivers. So, the end of 2020 is the worst-case scenario.

Of course, the U.S. isn’t the only country working on GNSS. Europe’s Galileo system also utilizes L1 and L5. It’s possible that in the 2014 timeframe, the U.S. could have a dozen GPS satellites broadcasting L1/L5 and Galileo could have a dozen Galileo satellites broadcasting L1/L5. Because the U.S. and Europe have been working so closely together to ensure GPS and Galileo work together seamlessly, having 12 Galileo satellites broadcasting L1/L5 is the same as GPS broadcasting L1/L5.

China is also working on a GNSS called Compass/BeiDou. Although China is very tight-lipped with its intentions, it’s possible China could launch some satellites in orbit that may contribute to an L1/L5 solution, but China is a serious wildcard.


Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t included GPS L2C in the discussion. L2C is an open GPS signal much like L5. There are currently seven GPS satellites broadcasting L2
C. Not including Galileo, there will be 24 GPS satellites broadcasting L2C before there are 24 GPS satellites broadcasting L5. In fact, some designers may decide to develop L1/L2C receivers. However, Galileo isn’t supporting L2 so while there will probably be triple-frequency receivers (L1/L2C/L5), my guess is that the standard will be L1/L5, because the third frequency isn’t going to buy you much.


No other conclusion can be drawn but that in the future, as soon as 2014 and as late as 2020, high-accuracy GPS receivers (cm-level in both horizontal and vertical) will be in the hands of anyone with a few hundred dollars to spend. This will be consumers as well as surveyors, engineers, contractors, GIS folks, and many other folks who see value in spatial data. They will have easy access to a fantastic new tool that will allow them to collect high-accuracy, horizontal and vertical data, at a very low cost and very conveniently. I keep referring to vertical accuracy because accurate vertical data is much more expensive to acquire with the technology that exists today, GPS and otherwise. Not so in the future. When one really thinks about the value of accurate low-cost vertical data, the numbers of applications are mind-boggling and will certainly send all disciplines that use spatial data in a new direction.

Perhaps no discipline will be more affected by this technology advancement than surveying. If you’re retiring in five years, you can probably get away with not thinking about this. But, if you’ve got more than that left in your career, you really need to consider what direction you want to go.

The bad news is that you have to change. Change is stressful, especially at mid-career, but you don’t have a choice if you want to enjoy a career in surveying. Technology is transforming surveying. You know it because you’ve been feeling the squeeze. You’ve seen that engineers and contractors have acquired technology tools to bring some activities in-house. Machine control is an obvious one. In just a few years, you likely won’t be doing the same sorts of tasks you’re doing today. There will be much more emphasis on data management and data analysis than on data collection (less field time, more office time). Of course, there will still be a need for people in the field, but that’s not where the professional wage is going to be earned. Those in the field will only have jobs, not careers. The well-paying careers will be in the office (either home office or business office or mobile office).

The good news is that there’s more opportunity than ever before. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had people from different organizations (public and private) ask me if I knew someone who could help solve their geospatial problem. Sometimes, it’s a problem combining data sets. Sometimes, it’s a problem interpreting the data they have as well as finding or collecting new data. Guess what? They aren’t looking in the telephone book (yellow pages) to find someone to help solve their problem. In fact, in some cases they don’t even care if you live in the same country as they do. True, you may have to travel to their office, but they don’t care as long as you solve their problems. I realize this may be a strange concept to many of you, but the Internet has made the world a lot smaller than it used to be. Your clients don’t have to be located within 200 miles of your office. You can have clients in different counties, states, provinces, and even countries! When you start letting go of the idea that your clients need to be geographically close to you, suddenly your business prospects start to look bright. When you limit your ten-person company to clients located within 100 miles in rural Alabama in this economy, you’re going to starve. When you release that limit and start thinking and acting regionally, statewide, nationwide, or worldwide, all of the sudden there’s a lot more opportunity to keep your employees working.

One important note

In order to take advantage of the opportunities I mentioned above, you have to expand your knowledgebase. There’s no choice. It’s either that or you’re bagging groceries at Walmart. Technology is changing and its forcing changes in your business, so you must adapt to those changes. Recently, I wrote about a technical session at the ACSM/GITA conference I attended called the Surveying Body of Knowledge (SBoK). Although I may have some differences with some of the SBoK committee member’s intentions, the concept is right. SBoK does a good job of defining the different disciplines in which surveyors can diversify. Briefly, the five areas are:

  1. Positioning (field data collection)
  2. Imaging (photogrammetry/remote sensing/3D scanners/LiDAR/)
  3. GIS (mapping/cartography)
  4. Law (boundary/real property/business law)
  5. Land development (construction/planning/development)

The idea is that if one discipline is weak, such as positioning, in the current economy, then you could shift your business in another direction where you are qualified, such as GIS or imaging. You certainly don’t need to be qualified in all five disciplines, but having three or four in your pocket gives you a lot of flexibility when the economy is as weak as it is now.


Thanks, and see you next time.

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