Technology: What is GPS (Global Positioning System)?
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a space-based satellite navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather, anywhere on or near the Earth, where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. It is maintained by the United States government and is freely accessible to anyone with a GPS receiver.
The GPS program provides critical capabilities to military, civil and commercial users around the world. In addition, GPS is the backbone for modernizing the global air traffic system.
The GPS project was developed in 1973 to overcome the limitations of previous navigation systems, integrating ideas from several predecessors, including a number of classified engineering design studies from the 1960s. GPS was created and realized by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and was originally run with 24 satellites. It became fully operational in 1994.
Advances in technology and new demands on the existing system have now led to efforts to modernize the GPS system and implement the next generation of GPS III satellites and Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX). Announcements from the Vice President and the White House in 1998 initiated these changes. In 2000, U.S. Congress authorized the modernization effort, referred to as GPS III.
In addition to GPS, other systems are in use or under development. The Russian GLObal NAvigation Satellite System (GLONASS) was in use by only the Russian military, until it was made fully available to civilians in 2007. There are also the planned European Union Galileo positioning system, Chinese Compass navigation system, and Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System.
The design of GPS is based partly on similar ground-based radio-navigation systems, such as LORAN and the Decca Navigator developed in the early 1940s, and used during World War II.
Basic concept of GPS:
A GPS receiver calculates its position by precisely timing the signals sent by GPS satellites high above the Earth. Each satellite continually transmits messages that include:
- the time the message was transmitted
- satellite position at time of message transmission
The receiver uses the messages it receives to determine the transit time of each message and computes the distance to each satellite using the speed of light. Each of these distances and satellites' locations define a sphere. The receiver is on the surface of each of these spheres when the distances and the satellites' locations are correct. These distances and satellites' locations are used to compute the location of the receiver using the navigation equations. This location is then displayed, perhaps with a moving map display or latitude and longitude; elevation information may be included. Many GPS units show derived information such as direction and speed, calculated from position changes.
In typical GPS operation, four or more satellites must be visible to obtain an accurate result. Four sphere surfaces typically do not intersect. Because of this we can say with confidence that when we solve the navigation equations to find an intersection, this solution gives us the position of the receiver along with accurate time thereby eliminating the need for a very large, expensive, and power hungry clock. The very accurately computed time is unused in many GPS applications, which use only the location. A few specialized GPS applications do however use the time; these include time transfer, traffic signal timing, and synchronization of cell phone base stations.
Although four satellites are required for normal operation, fewer apply in special cases. If one variable is already known, a receiver can determine its position using only three satellites. For example, a ship or aircraft may have known elevation. Some GPS receivers may use additional clues or assumptions such as reusing the last known altitude, dead reckoning, inertial navigation, or including information from the vehicle computer, to give a (possibly degraded) position when fewer than four satellites are visible.
How GPS works:
The current GPS consists of three major segments. These are the space segment (SS), a control segment (CS), and a user segment (US). The U.S. Air Force develops, maintains, and operates the space and control segments. GPS satellites broadcast signals from space, and each GPS receiver uses these signals to calculate its three-dimensional location (latitude, longitude, and altitude) and the current time.
The space segment is composed of 24 to 32 satellites in medium Earth orbit and also includes the payload adapters to the boosters required to launch them into orbit. The control segment is composed of a master control station, an alternate master control station, and a host of dedicated and shared ground antennas and monitor stations. The user segment is composed of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and allied military users of the secure GPS Precise Positioning Service, and tens of millions of civil, commercial, and scientific users of the Standard Positioning Service.
Watch video of How GPS Works: