What The Heck Is GPS?!

27 Mar 2008

You know the calm, pleasant voice and the pinpoint accuracy.  Without fail, that voice has guided you to your destination and back. Successfully navigating through detours and side trips.  Along the way, have you found yourself asking, what the heck is the Global Positioning Satellite System?

One Of The First GPS Satellites…

 Throughout time, we have searched for ways to find our place on earth and successfully get from one point to another.   Sailors used to follow the coastline, move a little farther out to sea and they would follow the stars.  Early navigational tools included star charts, sextants and a compass.  Major developments at the time, they had their limitations.  More reliable means were still needed.  Early in the 20th century, radio based navigation systems were developed and used in World War II.  Used by both ships and planes, these were again limited in accuracy and range. 

By the early 1960’s, the Navy, Air Force and Army were all working independently to find reliable, accurate means of navigation.  The advent of satellites and ability to track their movement from the ground laid the foundation for today’s GPS systems.  Invented by a combined effort of the Department of Defense in the 1970’s, the first GPS systems were used for military positioning, navigation and weapon aiming.  A mere eighteen satellites and their ground stations formed the original GPS.  These “artificial stars” were used as reference points to calculate geographical positions.  In 1978, the first fully operational GPS satellite was launched. 

It wasn’t long before the private sector wanted part of the GPS system.  The market demand came not only for sea navigation, but also for air travel, map making, and time reference.  The first thriving civilian GPS market was in land surveying.  Use of the GPS system offered greater time and cost savings in the surveying industry.  Not long after, the FAA began setting standards for GPS performance in aircraft, increasing their use as a supplementary navigational aid, opening the door for GPS manufacturers in the airline industry.  In 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making the system available for international civil use. 

By the mid 1990’s, the GPS system was finally fully operational with 24 satellites in orbit.  Demand for the systems was ever increasing, even though the civilian market was using a less than accurate system.  In 2000, President Clinton announced the end to the Pentagon’s intentional signal degradation of civil GPS signals.  This allowed for ten times more accurate positioning in civil receivers. 

The uses for GPS systems seem to be endless.  Allowing us to navigate local roads and waterways accurately and safely.  Increasing the response time for emergency personnel.  Decreasing transit time for shipping companies.  The field of telecommunications has also prospered from GPS advances.  A vital national resource, GPS is a valuable system that the majority of the world has become dependent upon. As new applications continue to be developed, GPS will be a mainstay in our daily lives.  We will continue to look to these “artificial stars” as a means of navigating our world.  Accompanying us into the 21st century is that same soothing, patient voice we have come to trust. 

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