The Journey of GPS: From Its Origins to a Bright Future

A Star is Born: The Origins of GPS 

It's 2024 and we almost can't imagine our lives without GPS. From getting your deliveries done, tracking morning runs, and localizing almost everything you do online, it has come a long way from inception. Let's talk about where it all started. 

The story of GPS (Global Positioning System) goes back to 1960. U.S. Department of Defense needed a reliable navigation system during the Cold War and there were serious application requirements to fill. There comes the Navy Navigation Satellite System also known as TRANSIT. With the help of TRANSIT using a series of satellites, the US managed to navigate submarines and this is the humble beginning of what GPS now is. 

Fast forward to the 1970s and another military application was launched called NAVSTAR GPS. This was an elaborate and almost ambitious project of launching its first official GPS satellite 7 years into the project started in 1978. The project continued on towards the mid-1990s until the US defense system had 24 satellites operational orbiting on full constellation.  

Now, that's all about the boring inception. Here's kicker, 

In 2000, GPS technology was opened up for civilian use, and then on, well, the world changed forever. 

GPS Today: Everywhere You Go 

Although GPS as a system feels less of an attention grabber, you are dealing with it multiple times a day, every day in everything you do. Smartphones, cars, trackers, and even household applications access this information to provide you better services that are more suited to you, your background, and your geographical surroundings. 

Here's how it works when you look for, say, directions.  

GPS satellites in orbit send signals to receiver units on the ground. By calculating the time it takes for these signals to travel, the receiver maps out the exact location.  

There are way too many applications to GPS than just finding locations or distances. It has revolutionized industries to the point that some would not exist without GPS. Talk about embedding it into daily lives! 

  • Transportation: Ride-sharing/hailing apps like Uber, Lyft, and Grab rely completely on GPS for matching drivers with passengers and calculating optimum routes. Secondly, logistic companies also use this for shipments and efficient deliveries. 
  • Agriculture: New-age agriculture uses GPS technology to optimize planting, fertilizing, quality control, and maintenance to harvesting. Farming is notoriously efficient when you have a holistic view and management of the land. 
  • Emergency Services: Crisis management benefits greatly through GPS to be the first responders to locate and manage incidents quickly. Being able to navigate through a crisis efficiently directly affects the number of lives saved depending on the severity. 
  • Environmental Monitoring: We're also seeing more and more wildlife and climate-related monitoring for both preservation and to study and predict natural disasters or even simply bad weather. GPS does a lot. 

The Future of GPS: Brighter and Smarter 

No technology is ever created and stopped at that. The same goes for GPS. We're barely at the starting line of what this technology can do for our lives and how far it can improve everything it touches - with some caveats of course. 

  1. Increased Accuracy: We're at a point where these GPS satellites can pinpoint you down to your exact location with an error rate of just a few centimeters. While this may feel overkill finding Golden Gate Bridge, it can certainly help you avoid collisions or assist your autonomous vehicle be the most precise driver on the road. 
  2. Global Coverage: GPS is a U.S.-based system. We know that by now, but, other countries aren't keeping it silent either. Europe has its own Galileo system, Russia has its GLONASS and China has BeiDou. Every major player is getting their hands on their own versions of the system to better improve reliability and other domestic or military applications. 
  3. Enhanced Security: As GPS becomes essential, security concerns also arise. Security experts are diligently working on protecting these tracking systems from spoofing or jamming, essentially anything that can falsify the readings to ensure the system stays reliable. 
  4. Integration with AI: With AI becoming the new trend in town, GPS is also getting a new kit to play with. GPS together with AI can analyze and predict traffic patterns, optimize routes and do an incredible job assisting first respondents in disaster management and so much more. 
  5. Indoor Navigation: This is the most accurate GPS has ever been since its inception. This means we are stepping into an era of indoor navigation being just as pinpoint. Technologies like Wi-Fi RTT (Round-trip Time) and ultra-wideband (UWB) make it possible that you can even track your car keys in the same room to the centimeter precision. One of the major commercial uses of UWB is Apple Airtags. 

Conclusion: A Journey That’s Just Beginning 

GPS has come a long way from being a military application and has become a part of our lives for the better. From letting us hail a cab to getting our food delivered and telling us how to go from A to B with optimal traffic routes all the while avoiding accidents, there's a lot this 'faded into the background' system does in a not-so-faded-out way. 

As AI and ML start playing a part in everything GPS is about, we're going to see more and more advanced uses of what pinpointing a location could do in collaboration with others. This is to also remind ourselves of the kind of technology that we have at our fingertips how they came to be and the history that comes with it. 

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