Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based tracking technology that is used for navigation by road, sea and air. The history of GPS has its roots in the very first satellite placed in space by the former Soviet Union in 1957.
Although its applications range include aviation and crime prevention, the technology is most readily associated with road navigation. GPS satellites feature atomic clocks which constantly transmit live time and positional data to GPS receivers on the ground. Of the 24 GPS satellites in orbit, a device such as a satnav must have at least four in unobstructed sight in order to receive accurate signals.
The history of satellite technology is very much linked to the military relationship between Russia and the USA. Whilst American engineers were still working on their Vanguard project in the mid-1950s, they were dramatically overtaken by the Soviets. Sputnik 1 successfully launched in October 1957, followed by Sputnik 2. Both were more advanced and capable than the unfinished American project.
This led to fears of new Soviet nuclear warfare against the USA facilitated by this technological breakthrough, but the only battle was of an aeronautical nature. After Vanguard’s failed launch at the end of 1957, Explorer 1 was USA’s belated but successful satellite launch, followed by the creation of NASA was in October 1958.
History of GPS Portable Navigational Devices
Over the next four decades, the progress of satellite technology led to GPS’ availability for non-military purposes, and selective availability was ended; paving the way for the proliferation of satellite navigation.
The first portable navigational device was launched in 2004. Netherlands-based TomTom had been developing mapping software for a few years before their TomTom Go product basically created a new product category. The first ever portable sat nav sold phenomenally well, selling a million units faster even than the smartphone.
Today’s smartphones have GPS capability built-in, and this technology is now supplemented by GLONASS. Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya, or Global Navigational Satellite System, is the latest contribution by those innovative Russians. It effectively increases the number of satellites that a navigational device can connect to, thus improving the positional accuracy.
The net result of 60 years of satellite technology is that most of us have an incredibly sophisticated, interactive map in our pockets. GPS helps us with so many applications, the latest of which appears to be the remote tracking and controlling of unmanned aerial vehicles. GPS makes the traditional ‘you are here’ label on city maps look rather understated.