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The Difference Between GPS and GIS

by Andrew Mead

Most people are familiar with the global positioning system (GPS). After all, it is a technology that has become increasingly prevalent in day-to-day life, from fleet monitoring and navigational systems in vehicles to tracking the movement of wildlife in research programs. The geographic information system (GIS) is less well-known, but without GIS, GPS could not possibly be used to its full potential. GPS is a satellite-based navigation system, and GIS is a software program designed to store and manipulate the data that GPS accumulates. Each system has its own unique capabilities, but when paired together, they create an invaluable resource for a variety of disciplines, including urban planning, disaster management, and agriculture.

Global Positioning System

GPS technology first began back in 1960 with the Transit satellite navigation system. Following roughly the same principles that GPS employs today, the Transit system used a network of five satellites to determine physical location on Earth. GPS was developed in 1973 and opened to the public in 1993 (prior to that point, it remained an exclusively military system). The GPS system currently employs 24 satellites in orbit around the earth. By sending a radio signal to the satellite array, the GPS system can pinpoint any location on the globe.

Geographic Information System

A GIS is a computer program designed to store and integrate data from navigation systems such as GPS and make said data available for analysis and interpretation at the request of the program user. The first rudimentary GIS was created in 1960 for use by Canada's Department of Forestry and Rural Development, and a desktop GIS emerged in 1986 for use with personal computers. Maps can be generated by a GIS with different layers of information on a particular area, which makes it possible to see patterns, such as the origin of a disease or topographical changes, previously invisible to the casual observer.

Miscellaneous GPS Resources

  • Global Positioning System: GPS is a relatively new creation and operates utilising sophisticated technology and mathematical calculations. This page and attached module from Penn State explains the different components of the GPS and how they work together within the system.
  • Navigation Programs: Global Positioning System: The GPS is currently managed by the Department of Defense, and potential uses for the system are still being researched and developed. The Federal Aviation Administration has more information on the GPS and its current status as a navigation tool.
  • Potential Networking Applications of GPS (PDF): GPS technology is currently used for everything from military operations to hobbies like geocaching. Take a look at the state of GPS today with this report from the Cornell University Library.
  • How Does the GPS Signal Work? GPS utilises two carrier frequencies to transmit information. Find out what they are and why these frequencies work the way they do.
  • GPS: The New Navigation Online Game: This game from PBS demonstrates how GPS satellites determine a location and the simple math behind the operation. Walk through three satellite relays to find out where you are!
  • A Beginner's Step-by-Step Guide to Geocaching (PDF): Geocaching is a fun way to see GPS in action. In this worldwide game, "treasure hunters" discover hidden caches with clues and GPS receivers. Follow this easy guide to get started and uncover the playful side of GPS.
  • GPS Control Segment: In GPS, there are two different segments to the system: a control segment and a receiver segment. Learn about the control segment, including the monitoring stations around the world, on this page from GPS.gov.
  • GPS and GPS Spacecraft: There are currently 24 GPS spacecraft in orbit around the earth. NASA has a page that explains the history of the GPS system and the technical specifications of each satellite in use.
  • GPS: A New Constellation: Before GPS, navigation relied on an understanding of astronomy and accurate timekeeping. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has a great page that details everything from the history of GPS to how it works and how scientists hope to use the technology in the future.
  • Fundamentals of the Global Positioning System: GPS has a wide variety of uses, but in order to take advantage of all possibilities, one must first understand the science behind the system. This mini-lesson from Washington University provides an explanation of the GPS satellites, radio relay timing, dilution of precision, and how to correct GPS errors.

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