In the modern world, we’ve all used GPS features at one time or another. We use it in our cars and through our phones, enough that it’s become second nature. Many people rely solely on their phone’s GPS function to travel anywhere. GPS is a leading technology in fleet management and gives drivers and managers the ability to travel much more efficiently. But what is GPS? We’ll cover the basics and show you just how versatile and increasingly essential GPS is.
What is GPS?
GPS, or the Global Positioning System, is a navigation satellite system for the globe made up of more than 24 satellites. Though originally developed for the U.S. military, GPS is now widely available for no charge to the public. It provides insights into positioning, navigation, timing, and more, and is used for all kinds of purposes.
GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) constellations
GPS was the first satellite constellation to orbit the planet. The system has 31 satellites, but 24 must be continuously operational 95% of the time, and those 24 satellites are divided into 6 different orbital planes, meaning at least 4 satellites are visible at all times.
GLONASS (GLObal NAvigation Satellite System) is Russia’s navigation satellite system, and is used for military and civilian purposes. GPS came first, but GLONASS is a comparable alternative, with 27 operational satellites.
Galileo is a European global navigation system, with 30 operational satellites. This system is available for civilians and commercial use, and is much younger than GPS, though still accurate.
BeiDou is a satellite navigation system of China, consisting of 55 satellites in its constellation. These satellites were launched in 3 phases, the most recent in 2020, making the newest additions some of the latest updates to a GNSS.
How does GPS work?
Satellites orbit the Earth twice a day, and GPS receivers can calculate the distances of satellites to determine a specific location. In simplified terms, GPS works by using satellites, receivers, and geometric algorithms. In a couple of basic steps, it looks like this:
- Satellites send radio transmissions, each with a unique signal.
- A GPS device, or receiver, receives that transmitted signal and processes the satellite’s information.
- Using the distances from a couple of satellites sent to the receiver, GPS receivers can determine the latitude, longitude, and altitude of a specific location, as well as time. This is referred to as trilateration.
This process takes at least 3, often 4 satellites to pinpoint the location. Using 4 satellites is what allows receivers to exact a 3D location. The advancement of GPS has allowed these precise calculations to happen constantly all around the world.
The 3 Segments of GPS
There are 3 segments that GPS can be divided into, the space segment, control segment, and user segment. Each is an essential function of the Global Positioning System.
The space segment is the satellite system just previously described. This segment is constantly sending signals to users all day every day.
This segment is an Earth-based ground control operation that monitors and analyzes the satellites and signals being used in the space segment.
This segment consists of the receivers and other equipment used by the users. This could be smartphones, watches, and vehicle technology, or telematics.
A short history of GPS
As mentioned before, GPS was developed for the U.S. military, starting in 1973. However, the history of GPS and what made it possible all started in the 1950s.
Launched by Russia in 1957 during the space race, Sputnik was the first satellite to successfully orbit the Earth. American scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) began monitoring the radio transmissions received from Sputnik. What they found was that as the satellite moved closer, the frequency of the radio signal increased, and decreased with it moved farther away.
This phenomenon was discovered with the Doppler Effect, and scientists observed that they could track where the satellite was in orbit based on tracking the radio frequency of the satellite. This was taken a step further when they realized that the satellite could also determine the position of a radio receiver on the ground using a radio frequency. These discoveries made geolocation a possibility.
Soon thereafter, the Department of Defense develops the Transit system, the first global satellite navigation system, used in submarine navigation. This eventually evolved into GPS navigation for the military in the 1960s. It took until the 2000s for GPS to be widely open to and used by the public as the U.S. government put an end to Selective Availability (SA).
Now we have over 24 satellites that have been launched, allowing advanced GPS tracking for your most average civilian.
How accurate is GPS?
Today, GPS is a fairly reliable tracking system. Depending on the quality of the receiver and the application, actual GPS coordinates can be within centimeters of the real thing. There are a couple of elements that can affect the accuracy, such as:
- Physical Obstacles. The natural world around us can skew the exactness of location, like mountains. There’s also manmade obstructions like large buildings or cities that can potentially interfere. Also known as an “urban canyon”, signals can be blocked by a dense city, tunnels, bridges, and more, which is why GPS tends to perform better in open areas.
- Reflected signals. Signals can also bounce off of objects, which can interrupt a signal’s speed and accuracy.
- Availability of satellites. Though rare, if there is any satellite maintenance or changes being made, there is sometimes gaps in GPS coverage.
- Atmoshperic effects. Traveling through the Earth’s atmosphere can cause refraction and diffraction of a signal, altering the speed and sometimes direction of a signal. This is also known as an ionospheric delay, and the longer a signal spends in the ionosphere, the greater the effect. Other naturally occurring factors like solar storms can also affect the precision of GPS.
- Faulty technology. The technology we use as receivers does vary in terms of quality. The higher grade equipment you have, the less likely there will be interruptions. Devices need to comply with GPS interface specifications to avoid numerical miscalculations.
There is continued development to improve GPS accuracy, such as adding new civilian signals to existing satellites. Though GPS is reliable most of the time, jobs that require high precision should use multiple tools that work with GPS to ensure real-time accuracy.
What are the uses of GPS?
The U.S. military continues to heavily use GPS strategies and tools, and so do civilians, commercially and personally. One of the amazing elements of GPS is the many things we can do with a location, such as determining speed, the distance to another destination, when the sun will rise and set, and so much more. There are plenty of applications that businesses and individuals use GPS for.
Some of the main uses of GPS are:
Applying GPS uses in our world today
Law Enforcement: Police officers and dispatchers work closely together using GPS to ensure quick response times to dangerous activity.
Delivery Services: In an increasingly e-commerce world, delivering is becoming vital to every industry, especially when it’s quickly and accurately executed, which is what GPS helps with by providing precise locations, timing calculations, and better fleet dispatching capabilities.
Health and Fitness: Smartwatches that have GPS not only provide direction but track the distances people exercise for, which also makes other health-related calculations possible.
Construction: Construction fleet management and teams can track their assets using GPS and also monitor the state of vehicles.
Transit/Transportation: Moving people and products in a timely, safe, and streamlined manner by today’s standards is impossible without GPS.
Fleet Monitoring: GPS allows fleet managers and drivers to drive more carefully and effectively by having real-time locations available at all times. Monitoring truck routes using GPS is both convenient and efficient.
Using GPS in fleet monitoring
Fleet monitoring requires GPS tracking functions to optimize routes for drivers, track driving habits and behavior, and improve the overall safety of a fleet. One of the biggest factors that GPS plays is making it possible to monitor and alert managers in real-time. Reliable security is much more likely as well because fleets are notified of unauthorized locations, off-hour vehicle use, etc.
GPS and dead reckoning for AI-based telematics
GPS has made some amazing things possible in the AI realm. Fleetcam cameras, for example, can detect when a driver’s eyes close and audibly alerts the driver for safer steering, and other technology like sensors and monitoring systems ultimately create safer drivers. However, because GPS isn’t always perfectly reliable when it comes to signal blockage, you can use both GPS and dead reckoning technology to improve safety.
Dead reckoning is a method of navigation that has been used by ship navigators for hundreds of years, even back in Columbus’ time during the Age of Exploration. Dead reckoning is basically an equation that uses velocity, distance, and directional information to help determine the location of something. Now computerized, the integrated dead reckoning technology in Fleetcam systems helps monitor a vehicle’s location, so in the brief moments when GPS is struggling to perform, you have an alternative tracking system to locate a driver, and therefore are still able to monitor and alert accurately using AI telematics.
The future of GPS
Advancements will continue to be made as the U.S. spends billions of dollars to make even more efficient GPS possibilities. For example, new civilian and military signals are planned to be implemented for an improved GPS experience.
Most importantly, GPS isn’t going anywhere, and as it becomes more accessible, businesses are fully utilizing the convenience of instant location data. Even more notable is how GPS is transforming from a convenience to a necessity. Forward Thinking Systems uses fleet GPS monitoring software every day to help empower fleets to perform their best, improve upon safety practices, and optimize their workflow. Like many cutting-edge industries, GPS is an absolute standard tool for fleet services and management.