Space Awareness

GPS: Making the World Safer

Written by: developer

by Brandon Kurtz, Guest Contributor*

As I sat reading a book about the history of GPS, I was reminded of the societal benefits this innovation brought to the world. Though it has existed for over 30 years, warfighters and civilians alike continue to use GPS to a considerable extent, as it provides a highly reliable method for positioning, navigation and timing around the globe. It is important to reflect on why the world relies on GPS and why it is a key factor for our public safety.

The Global Positioning System, known simply as GPS, consists of 24+ satellites set in six circular orbital planes at an altitude of 20,200 kilometers. This Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) configuration offers free global coverage, as four satellites are always within view of the observer. The satellites, colloquially referred to as “birds,” provide reference points toward the determination of one’s position on Earth. Currently in production, the next generation of GPS satellites promises improved dependability and accuracy.

On the battlefield, GPS-aided munitions significantly improve weapon accuracy. These advancements enable enhanced combat effectiveness and better non-combatant safety by minimizing collateral damage with the deployment of fewer payloads. In addition, blue force tracking systems utilize GPS to provide friendly forces location information, ensuring a strategic advantage to commanders, while playing a role in reducing fratricide. GPS is regarded as a force multiplier for ground, air and sea components of the military.

In civilian use, GPS provides numerous benefits to anyone with a receiver. In particular, GPS-linked emergency beacons greatly improve the likelihood of discovery for those stranded in the wilderness or at sea. Combined with data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) System, approximate location can be transmitted to search and rescue teams via the U.S. Mission Control Center in Suitland, Md. According to the NOAA SARSAT website, 250 rescues occurred last year in the United States, with many more taking place worldwide. GPS is an invaluable tool for rescuers, aviators, hikers and many more adventurers.

Future innovations, such as autonomous vehicles, will be heavily reliant on GPS for tracking and navigation. Supplemented with other directional approaches, self-driving vehicles equipped with GPS may radically lower vehicle accident rates. An estimated 31,000 lives could be saved annually by eliminating human error from driving. Drastically reducing fatal crashes on the motorways by employing available technology is a reason to be optimistic about the future. This is one area I follow with great excitement as GPS will definitely have a role in its development.

GPS is one of my favorite space-based inventions, although its seamless integration into everyday life goes largely unseen. It is a brilliant, ubiquitous concept that provides amazing effects in all-weather, day and night. Whether bringing order to the chaos of combat or a daily commute, GPS is making the world a better, safer place to live.

*Brandon Kurtz is a Space Foundation volunteer and an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University graduate student. He is currently deployed in the Middle East.

This article is part of Space Watch: November 2016 (Volume: 15, Issue: 11).