Turn by Turn Navigation – Your GPS Just Turned 25

February 28th, 2014

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It was twenty five years ago this month that our society began to use the Global Positioning System, or GPS, that we know of today.  The concept of GPS was simple:  to help an individual locate their current location or a target that needs to be identified with great accuracy.  As with many technological breakthroughs, this application was designed exclusively for the United States military to support global operations on land, air, and sea.  The GPS network was employed with particular vigor in the U.S. nuclear arsenal targeting system and thankfully has yet to be used in this capacity.  The military continued to have exclusive access to GPS telemetry until September 1, 1983 when Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down by the Soviet air force after the pilot unknowingly strayed into Russian air space.   The flight was en route from Anchorage to Seoul when the incident occurred, which resulted in the complete loss of all 269 passengers and crew.

Historians consider it to be one of the tensest moments of the Cold War and greatly increased anti-Soviet sentiment in the U.S.  To this day there remain conflicting views on the exact details of the event, as the Soviets hindered the accident investigation.  But it was clear that such a catastrophe could have been avoided if enhanced navigation technology was made available for civilian and commercial use.  Thus President Ronald Reagan made GPS data public, though to this day the Department of Defense retains administrative control of our nation’s navigational satellites.  It was not until December 1993 that all 24 satellites were running and the network as a whole was deemed available.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s there were several milestones for the program.  In 1991 the First Gulf War was the first conflict in which GPS was widely used.  Private companies began using the technology to track cargo shipments, and surveyors were able to process data much faster.  President Clinton in 1996 declared GPS a “national asset” and instituted policies to ensure it would be maintained as society entered the new millennia. In 2004, Qualcomm announced that GPS assisted cell phones were being tested and shortly be made available for the consumer.  Fast forward to 2014 and GPS is used in almost every facet of your day.  From the car you drive to the cell phone on your hip, GPS is there.  Public safety agencies around the world also rely heavily on GPS to locate callers dialing into 911 Centers, support search and rescue missions, as well as map flood plains.  And it’s the basis for my job, as a Geographic Information System (GIS) Specialist, to support emergency managers in their everyday goal to deliver fast, accurate assistance during a disaster.

Looking forward, there are no signs that society will shake its reliance on the technology.  In fact other countries, such as India and the European Union, are working tirelessly to develop their own independent GPS network of satellites and base stations to support regional navigational services as we advance further into the 21st Century.

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