Through the looking glass: New perspectives on GNSS

July 28, 2016  - By

Three recent publications offer a range of perspectives on GNSS technology, the accompanying industry and its effects on the world we live in. They are rather like surveying the topic through three types of looking glass: a mirror, a microscope and a telescope. I recommend them all.

From the first listed below (Misra), you may not learn much new about GPS or GNSS, but you’ll experience something like looking at your reflection or reading an encyclopedia entry about yourself. You’ll get a view of of the GPS ecology in this case, as a broad and curious public might. And that is in itself a learning experience. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” — Robert Burns. Read it yourself before giving it to someone you know, of almost any age but probably high school or older, who is curious but not necessarily scientific.

The second book, by Greg Milner, examines the technology and its impact much more closely and at much greater length. With a few dashes of history and generous helpings of current events, it makes the point that GPS is not only changing our lives, but our minds. That can be a scary thought. The book lays out a very rich and fascinating tapestry of interwoven trends, personalities, anecdotes and conjectures. Again, read it yourself before giving it to anyone who …

The third publication cited here, a white paper by Rolls Royce and colleague companies, is an online resource showing just where the world is headed. It treats only one realm, marine shipping, but it lays out a convincing vision of a future shaped and directed by PNT that can easily be overlaid onto many other forms of transportation and commerce. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said it recently: autonomous vehicles are coming, whether the world is “ready or not.”

GPS for Everyone: You Are Here
by Pratap Misra
Ganga-Jamuna Press (available on Amazon)

GPSforEveryone 1By the co-author of one of the core technical references on GPS and a graduate-level engineering text (Global Positioning System: Signals, Measurements, and Performance, ), this large-format, large-print volume takes a beginner’s view. Although Misra says at two junctures, “we learned to solve [such] equations in high school algebra” and “you may remember from calculus,” no math is necessary to take in the overall view and basic facts of satellite navigation concepts.  As the author states, the only prerequisite for this book is curiosity.

With chapters on Nuts and Bolts, Signals, Math, Relativity, a Tool of Science, Smart Bombs and more, this primer gives a comprehensive overview of just about everything the general user could well afford to know about GPS. The one shortcoming from a public information point of view is that many of the wide-ranging applications and market sectors are given short shrift.  The importance of precise timing and GPS’ role in critical infrastructure get two paragraphs.  A somewhat pejorative chapter on other GNSS labels them all “wannabes” and makes the surprising assertion that “when Putin goes, so could GLONASS.”

Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds
by Greg Milner
W.W. Norton & Co.

Pinpoint2GPS marks yet another rite of passage with the publication of Pinpoint: a full-length journalistic investigation of its development, personalities, and societal impact, with a diverting assortment of side stories and philosophical illuminations. A technology can be said to have arrived when it receives this manner of broad-market, though rigorous, intelligent, probing treatment. Never mind that every such technology truly arrived long before their books were written.

This is not a book to give to friends and relations who ask you “How the heck does GPS work?” (For that, see Pratap Misra’s book.) It does spend a bit of time on that subject, a very little bit. Neither is it a history of GPS. Author Greg Milner spends a bit more time on that topic, and his direct sources are impeccable. The major portion of the book is devoted to “contemporary history,” if there is such a thing: the sprawling tentacle-like growth of GPS into many industries and aspects of modern life.

Milner does not chronicle every one or even a plurality of these diverse fields. One gets the feeling he pretty much followed his journalistic nose into whatever interested him. Sections explore early receiver development, electrical power, financial markets, tracking (both personal and fleet), agriculture with a focus on the sugar beet, auto navigation,   and a few more. Throughout, Milner pushes forward anecdotes — personal recollection of many, many diverse contributors and benefitees, or in a few cases, victims. One chapter bears the title “Death by GPS.”

He takes long, looping sidetrips that are always interesting, far though they may wander. The most notable case is that of Polynesian cross-Pacific navigation, a mental construct called etak, which takes up, at length, the first chapter of the book. We become aware that possibly what interests Milner most is navigation as a state of mind. He attempts to tie it all together at the end; it doesn’t quite work, but the many questions he raises along the way are certainly worth pondering.

Two examples, only pages apart. In an investigation of the legality and Constitutional issues of tracking and surveillance by law enforcement, he states: “GPS provides the possibility of omniscience, unlike any previous technology. There is nothing ‘natural’ about using GPS to keep a continuous inventory of the world’s moving parts. It reflects a choice, a conscious application of a neutral technology . . . GPS itself is a blank slate onto which we project our desires.”

And in a section on marketing: “Stickiness, a term online marketers apply to websites that encourage repeat visits, could also describe how GPS lets us ‘build situational contexts around things and people to create new meanings, associations and stickiness of disparate data. The simplest example is when we use a program like Google Maps to learn about our location, a sticky query that draws in satellite mapping, ground-level photography, and business information.”

Remote and Autonomous Ships: The Next Steps
Available online from Rolls Royce and the AAWAAAWA

The Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) published a white paper in June as part of presentations at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium 2016 in Amsterdam. The white paper outlines the Project’s vision of how remote and autonomous shipping will become a reality.

Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce Vice President of Innovation – Marine, said “This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist. The AAWA project is testing sensor arrays in a range of operating and climatic conditions in Finland and has created a simulated autonomous ship control system which allows the behaviour of the complete communication system to be explored. We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”

The AAWA white paper explores the research carried out to date on the business case for autonomous applications, the safety and security implications of designing and operating remotely operated ships, the legal and regulatory dimensions and the existence and readiness of a supplier network to deliver commercially applicable products in the short to medium term.

Positioning Technologies. The proposed system draws on a range of sensors (see Figure 1) including GPS, inertial, lidar, cameras, short-range radars, and electronic charts. “When combined witha global or local positioning reference such as GNSS, and with wind sensors and inertial measurement units, the ship is able to keep its position even in rough weather conditions,” states the report. “The main question is therefore not whether the implementation of autonomous ship navigation is technically possible, but what is the combination of technologies and methods that provides the level of performance and reliability that is required for practical operation of large vessels, and at a reasonable cost.”


The white paper draws on a wide range of expertise from academic researchers at some of Finland’s leading universities. Industry input has been provided by leading members of the maritime cluster including Rolls-Royce, Brighthouse NAPA, Deltamarin, DNV GL and Inmarsat.

The project also has the support of shipowners and operators. The tests of sensor arrays are being carried out aboard Finferries 65-metre double ended ferry, the Stella, which operates between Korpo and Houtskär. ESL Shipping Ltd is helping explore the implications of remote and autonomous ships for the short sea cargo sector.

This is posted in GNSS, Opinions, Uncategorized

About the Author: Alan Cameron

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

1 Comment on "Through the looking glass: New perspectives on GNSS"

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  1. It is none the less interesting that the world is beginning to recognize the value of the technology that we have been working with for the last 30 years.. The GIS process I developed & patented is just now becoming a valuable asset for the folks that want to turn the real estate settlement process that has been paper based for the last 150 yrs into a “Point & Click” system. But the land title surveyors of the world hold that segment of the process in close hands. My system can reduce that portion of the process to a “DRIVE BY” ,