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Guide to GPS Navigation

by Andrew Mead

Even though navigation using GPS seems like brand-new technology, the fact is that it has been in development since the 1970s. Once predominantly used by the military only, GPS has also been made available for personal use by the civilian population.

What is GPS Navigation?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System, and it works by utilizing 24 satellites put into orbit by the United States Department of Defense. The government began the development of GPS in 1973, but it did not become fully functional until 1995.

The first GPS setups were used in the 1940s during World War II by the British Royal Navy. These systems were ground-based radio navigation systems called LORAN and Decca. Navigation using satellites was not realized until the Russians put Sputnik into orbit in 1957. According to the paper Genesis of Satellite Navigation, during that time, two American physicists tried to monitor the satellite's radio transmissions. Thanks to the Doppler effect, they could pinpoint the satellite's location in orbit. This led to the development of the first five-satellite navigation system, called Transit, which was used by the United States Navy in the early 1960s.

The Omega Ground System, the first worldwide navigation system, was developed in the 1970s. The government knew that in order to create an even more advanced navigation system, it would cost billions of dollars to do so. It became funded, however, with the eruption of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear weapons.

GPS Devices

Today, people all over the world can take advantage of GPS navigation systems. GPS can be found in all kinds of devices, including:

  • In-Vehicle Navigation Systems: Most brand-new vehicles come equipped with GPS capabilities, but for those who don't have them, consumers can get one installed right in the dash of their vehicle or one that sits on top of the dash. The in-dash GPS units come as touchscreens in various sizes. Some common features of in-dash GPS units include a CD and/or DVD player or rear-view camera.
  • Mobile Phones: Because of cell phone towers, mobile phones already have the capability to track location even without a GPS system. However, sometimes things like mountains or tall buildings can interrupt the signal or a cell phone tower might not be in close enough range. Many of the newer cell phones have GPS installed in them. Some phones only use GPS for 911 calls, and the more advanced phones can receive and display maps and give directions.
  • Tablets: The newer portable computers contain a GPS chip. There are certain apps that need to be downloaded in order to use the GPS feature. Some apps download maps as the tablet user travels, while other apps can download all maps before travel begins.
  • Watches: GPS watches are worn on the wrist like any other watch and are automatically connected to the satellite system orbiting the earth. They are used for more than just location; some have features allowing athletes and others outdoors to keep track of the weather.

Personal Use of GPS

People are discovering everyday how they can benefit from using GPS systems. While one of their most popular uses is for traveling, especially in unknown territory, there are many other personal uses as well. Parents are using GPS as a way to track their children and even their pets. Athletes use GPS to track their performance during training. Some devices can track heart rates and running speed. GPS is also useful for navigating park trails, road and mountain biking, mountain climbing, and flying personal airplanes.

Professional Use of GPS

At one time, GPS was only used by the military. Today, however, GPS is an amazing tool for other professional sectors, like business, health, criminal investigations, and engineering. Many people who work in the trucking or delivery sectors find GPS especially helpful, and finding locations easily can save both time and money. In civil engineering and road construction, GPS allows operators of machinery to be guided by on-board computer displays for accurate structural placement and taking precise measurements.