Global Positioning Systems: Where Are You NOW? - - Jackson, MS

Global Positioning Systems: Where Are You NOW?

By Staff

Open the glove compartment of any well-traveled vehicle and you're likely to find a map or two mashed inside, perhaps with some spilled coffee stains, maybe a few holes from poor folding technique.

Soon, those ratty old maps could become obsolete, thanks to advances in Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology and new GPS consumer products. Moreover, hikers don't have to get lost in the forest and cell-phone users calling from phones with built-in GPS systems can be automatically located when they dial 911.

GPS is system of 24 government-owned satellites that rotate around the planet every 12 hours. By picking up signals from a minimum of three satellites, a GPS receiver can provide a near-exact ground location. Adding a fourth signal permits a receiver to provide an altitude as well, which comes in handy for pilots, mountain climbers and others. Most basic consumer receivers are equipped to scan eight to 12 signals at a time and home in on the strongest three.

GPS: How it got its start

GPS began as guidance system for the U.S. military. Film footage from the Gulf War showed missiles destroying certain buildings while the neighboring buildings remained unscathed. Chalk up that accuracy to GPS.

Within the past decade, however, GPS has gone mainstream. Inexpensive receivers have become available for private pilots, boaters, hikers, campers, truck drivers, train engineers, fleet vehicles. For every niche or activity that involves movement or travel, there is a GPS receiver on the market.

Industry analysts expect the market for GPS products to double – from $8 billion to $16 billion annually – by 2004.

In addition, the federal government recently ended its longstanding practice of scrambling GPS signals. By scrambling the signals, anyone other than the U.S. military and its allies picked up a slightly distorted reading – a reading distorted enough to throw an enemy bomb off target by several hundred feet, for example.

That practice was suspended May 1, 2000, after four years of negotiations among the White House, U.S. military leaders and the Central Intelligence Agency. Millions of GPS receivers that were already accurate suddenly became even more accurate. The move was a strong sign that the role of GPS in private, non-military applications is becoming more important.

GPS manufactures applauded the decision as well.

"Our products have become more valuable and useful overnight," said John Huyett, president and CEO of Magellan. "The same GPS receiver that provided accuracy within 100 meters of a user's location yesterday is providing position fixes with as good as 10-meter accuracy today."

The convenience factor

How do users feel? Indiana resident Craig Lantham, a self-described weekend hiker, carries a small GPS unit when venturing into unfamiliar territory. He said that has not gotten lost yet, but that he likes the idea of a pure, unscrambled GPS signal.

"It seems kind of outdated to jam (the signal)," he said. "If somebody or some other country was out to get us, I think they'd be able to find us. Many GPS devotees say that the hardest part about using a receiver is learning to trust it. Even then, it does not always work out. A GPS receiver in a car, for example, does not know when it is steering a driver into a massive traffic jam.

Automobile GPS receivers will probably benefit the most from the unscrambled signals. When the signals were scrambled, two roads running parallel to each other could confuse even the most precise GPS receivers. With a signal that is 100 percent accurate, however, mistakes are unlikely.

Ideally, the best way to choose a GPS receiver is to borrow one and hash it out. A large number of GPS clubs and discussion groups – and no shortage of opinions – are available on the Internet.

Costs: reasonable to ratcheted-up

The most basic GPS receivers are priced at slightly more than $100. Garmin's eTrex, for example, lists for $119 at Dick's Sporting Goods stores and features basic 12-channel navigation and backtracking features that allow the user to mark a path and retrace his or her steps.

For $345, Magellan's Map 410 offers a larger display, weather information, and fish and game information.

Beyond that, more money will by you access to CD ROMs that update the maps, quicker location times and more bells and whistles.

For cars, most aftermarket GPS navigation systems cost between $1,800 and $3,000, including installation from a dealer. Prominent aftermarket GPS installers include Phillips-Caron, Visteon and Alpine. As standard equipment, GPS systems fall into the $2,000-to $3,000 range, although they are often packaged with other options that can end up increasing the price of a car by as much as $5,000.

Several upscale automakers began including GPS navigation systems in their 2000 models. BMW's 7-series and Mercedes' S-class are among them.

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