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40 Years of GPS: The Technology Behind Vehicle Tracking Systems

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Throughout history people have needed an accurate way of navigating around the Earth. Celestial navigation, wayfinding, compasses, and radio wave navigation were all used before an official Global Positioning System (GPS) was developed. The problem with traditional star and moon navigation was that it only offered a one-way communication. Explorers could navigate but could not send information back to help others find their location.

Today GPS vehicle tracking systems are key tools for many businesses, ensuring instant two way communication whilst transmitting and recording a wealth of insightful machine and operator data.

From battlefields to businesses

The concept of GPS was based on the LORAN and Decca Navigation Systems, which were used by allied forces during World War II to help navigate ships and aircraft at long range.

On February 22, 1978, members of the U.S. Air Force Space Division launched the first NAVSTAR (Navigation Satellite with Timing and Ranging). This satellite-based navigation system established a new standard in navigation and location accuracy.

In the midst of the cold war, it was the tragic loss of 269 civilians on the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 that led to civilian access to the GPS system. The passenger airplane deviated from its route and was mistaken as a U.S. spy craft and shot down by the Soviet Union military.

To avoid future accidents, President Ronald Reagan granted approval in late 1983 to make a portion of the GPS system data available for civilian use. This opened up options for airlines, ocean ships and other modes of transportation to use GPS tracking for navigation. It also allowed land surveyors to develop new equipment using GPS data to accurately locate positions of objects around the world.

The highest quality GPS signal was initially reserved for military use, and an intentionally degraded signal was used by civilian GPS devices. However, on May 1, 2000, this selective availability was turned off, improving GPS accuracy from 100 meters to just 20 meters. Today, GPS is even more accurate.

A constellation of satellites

Currently there is a constellation of 24 active satellites orbiting Earth, powering navigation in everything from your airplane to your cell phone. GPS satellites orbit Earth around every 10-12 hours, and sit approximately 17,700km above the Earth’s surface. To accurately provide a three-dimensional location, a GPS unit must receive a signal from four satellites, each with a precise location. Scientists have designed six different orbit paths that provide a continuous signal to all corners of the planet.

Tracking people, pets and…sharks?!

If you thought GPS was only about navigation, you were wrong. It can also be used to determine the accurate time. Each GPS satellite consists of atomic clocks and time signals that the GPS receiving device can use to obtain the correct time. These signals are used to set the time in our smartphones.

GPS has been used in tracking devices for luggage, pets, personal items, and even specially designed shoes for people with Alzheimer’s in case they get lost.

GPS trackers are even being used to avoid shark attacks! By tracking big sharks, Ocearch can send alerts to lifeguards if the beast comes too close to shore. Plus, the tracking data gives rich insight into the movements and behaviours of these ocean creatures.

Teletrac Navman has been using GPS technology for over 30 years to empower customers with vehicle tracking systems for effective fleet management. As one of the world’s largest telematics organisations, we are thankful for the development of and investment in a Global Positioning System.

After all, where would we be without GPS? Probably lost!


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