The Global Positioning System

The Navstar GPS offers a reliable, inexpensive means of determining where you are, anywhere in the world, no matter the weather conditions. Becoming fully operational Dec 8th, 1993, GPS receivers have become a key navigational aid to mariners and hikers alike. GPS was originally intended for military use only, to aid solders in battle, and is run by the US DoD. Civilian use was planned for only after the 1983 Korean Air Lines 007 disaster caused by Cold War tensions and poor navigation. Known as the Standard Positioning Service (SPS), it is less accurate than the military Precise Positioning Service (PPS).

Prior to May 1st, 2000, something called selective availability (SA) intentionally degraded the accuracy of SPS to be plus or minus about 80 meters. Turned off by an executive order of Bill Clinton to foster commercial uses of GPS, SPS can now provide 20 meter accuracy. SA can be turned back on over large areas during times of hostilities, however.

As one might expect, GPS receivers have followed most other electronic devices down the path of becoming smaller, faster, better and cheaper over time. You can purchase a small hand-held unit for less than $200 with better accuracy than much larger units made only a couple of years ago.

GPS receivers are also available as PCMCIA cards for laptops and some hand-helds. There’s a plug-in GPS module for Handspring Visors, or you can simply interface a hand-held GPS receiver with a mobile (hand-held or laptop) computer using a serial interface.

A programmable device knows where it is. This is where the magic begins.

Plotting the current position on a dynamic map has been used for years, starting with boaters using laptop computers. More recently embedded solutions have appeared, providing drivers with assistance in road navigation. “Turn left at next set of lights.”

With the addition of a wireless data-link, mobile assets can be monitored from a dispatch or management center. In the case of a taxi fleet, the nearest available unit can automatically be routed to a fare. Alerts can be raised for anomalies, such as vehicles being off-route or over-speed.

What is perhaps a little startling is this is all going to be common within 10 years. GPS receivers will, in that time, become a default feature of most cell phones. This is in order to satisfy a requirement in many jurisdictions of cell phone companies to be able to provide the location of callers to 911.

Mass production will continue to drive down the cost of receivers. High-end features like the OnStar GPS navigation system will become default options for most new vehicles. Combined with cheap two-way wireless networking, children borrowing the family car may never again feel quite the same sense of temporary freedom as current, and past, youth have.

This is all, of course, very exciting. Hungry for a really good Ginger Fried Beef? Your PDA will know where to go, and will direct you. Or, if you’re using an old model which doesn’t have a GPS built in, it will instead use Bluetooth to talk to your cellphone, which will.

Of course, like physics and its energy and mass, information technology has convenience and security — if you gain one, you lose the other. How are people going to react knowing their position is always being monitored? It can often be a benefit, but it isn’t necessarily always so.

I suspect it will soon become an accepted relaxation of the rights to privacy in exchange for the privilege of licensing and operating a motor vehicle. Driving behavior will likely improve considerably after historical “black-box” logs from GPS navigation systems start being introduced as evidence during accident investigations. But, when out for a walk, will you be able to turn your position beacon off without also losing your phone?

It’s interesting to think that people born today are likely to never know what it’s like to be lost. Just like the rest of us don’t think anything of reading after dark. Perhaps vacation spots will start installing GPS jammers, much like cell-phone jamming is common today.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

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