While the rise of smartphones helped GPS technology become ubiquitous, it existed long before Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. And though GPS tech is primarily known for its ability to help drivers find the shortest route to a destination, it was developed for something else entirely.
A military eye in the sky
Like many of the technological innovations we take for granted today, the precursor to modern GPS technology was developed for military use. The U.S.’s very first navigation satellite, Transit 1B, was launched into space in 1960. Its purpose: to guide missiles launched by the U.S. Navy.
The replacement for the U.S. Navy Navigation Satellite System, NAVSTAR GPS, was initially developed in 1973 and a prototype satellite was launched into orbit in 1978. The technology was adapted for commercial use in 1983, but the U.S. military still scrambled the satellite signals to protect national security (making the accuracy of GPS dubious at best). These issues persisted until the U.S. government unscrambled GPS satellite signals in 2000.
An overview of what happens overhead
Currently, there are 29 GPS satellites and each orbits the Earth twice a day. These satellites are grouped into six orbital planes to ensure at least four satellites can “see” almost any site on Earth at any given time.
So how does GPS work? Well, it takes more than just these satellites. There’s also a robust network of ground stations that constantly receive location data via radio transmissions from space.
When a phone, vehicle navigation system or some other device pings the nearest satellite, three satellites are utilized to triangulate the device location. One satellite provides the degree of longitude, another provides the degree of latitude and the third provides data that helps identify the exact position. Information like location, speed and direction is then beamed down to a ground station and relayed to the device that initially pinged the satellite.
Plotting a course to the future
Around the time the U.S. opened up GPS for commercial use, it also authorized the creation of what’s known as GPS III. The non-military advantages of GPS III include three times the accuracy plus a power increase that will make it easier to pick up signals under a canopy of trees, in urban canyons between skyscrapers and even inside buildings. Getting GPS III online will require new ground stations as well as ten new satellites. The first was put into orbit in 2018 and the final launch is tentatively scheduled for 2023.
Bringing GPS along for the ride
While GPS-powered monitoring tech has been available to large fleets for several years, it’s only recently become affordable enough for smaller fleets to adopt. With the hyper-accurate tracking abilities of GPS III literally on the horizon, there’s never been a better time to put an entire network of satellites to work for you.