Archive for Monday, December 18, 2006

The global allure of GPS

Locating technology explodes all over outdoors endeavors

December 18, 2006

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Not so many years ago - well within the last decade - Global Positioning System units were cost-prohibitive, unwieldy and inaccurate.

Oh, they also were so complicated, even if you could afford one, could lug one around and didn't care too much how far off it was, you needed an advanced degree to work it.

My, how times have changed.

Today, anyone can walk into a big-box variety store, plunk down around 100 bucks and walk out with a GPS unit small enough to fit in a hand and easy enough to operate without so much as a glance at the instruction manual.

"It really has, I think, changed lives," said Lawrence's Chris Coffman, a Lawrence hiker/camper/boater/geocacher. "I'm really impressed with how the technology has come along. It adds an element of safety to a lot of the things I do."

While some might look at GPS as nothing more than another high-tech gizmo, it could be argued no technology has made as big of an impact on scores of outdoors endeavors as GPS has.

There are purpose-built GPS units for runners and walkers, cyclists and hikers, boaters and drivers.

GPS quickly is becoming ubiquitous, making it possible for:

¢ fitness enthusiasts to know how exactly far they've run or walked or biked without measuring their strides;

¢ hikers never to get lost and always find their way back to camp;

¢ anglers to return precisely to their favorite fishing hole;

¢ golfers to know how far their drive traveled and how far to the hole;

¢ hunters to find their way back to their fallen game;

¢ and drivers to find their way, turn-by-turn, without so much as a missed turn.

"More and more people have them," said Jessica Myers, of Olathe-based GPS giant Garmin International Inc. "There are still some folks out there that don't, but we hope it becomes like the iPod, where everybody has them."

Where am I?

Coffman bought his first GPS unit about two years ago.

Now he has two - a basic handheld unit and a fancier mapping GPS receiver he uses primarily in his car to get from Point A to Point B with minimal fuss.

And that's not including the GPS unit built into his cell phone.

"I use the mapping one pretty much on any road trip I go on, anytime I'm in Kansas City or any city," Coffman said. "That thing gets me anywhere."

Before GPS, Coffman said, "I never really went anywhere if I didn't know where I was going," he said. "I maybe used Mapquest. Before that : I probably just avoided it."

And Coffman's not alone.

Coffman is an avid geocacher, a participant in a pastime that didn't exist before the advent of GPS. In geocaching, people hide "caches," then provide clues and coordinates for others to find the caches.

"A lot of people I meet in geocaching admit to me - and sometimes they look like it - that getting out of the house is a big feat for them," Coffman said. "It (GPS) gives them a lot of confidence."

Such is the promise of GPS.

With a GPS unit, no one ever is truly lost, whether it be in the woods or the urban jungle.

"Like I said, it provides an element of safety," Coffman said. "I've never been in a real danger situation, but it has helped me get out of the woods quicker. It wasn't life or death, but it definitely helped speed up my withdrawal. And that's part of the safety of it. You know where you are and where you're going, so it helps you time distances so your not out after dark, for instance."

The rise of GPS

What gave rise to the wildfire spread of GPS?

Garmin's Myers credits several factors.

"It's really a variety of things," she said. "Part of it is, the cost of the devices has decreased. Any electronics, when brand-new, are expensive. As time goes on, you're able to produce them less expensively. Another factor is simplicity. They're much easier to use, very user-friendly so you can use them without having to know much about the machine itself. Now, it's as simple as paying at the pump or using and ATM machine - very intuitive.

"Another factor is the integration of other technologies into one device. Some automotive devices have MP3 players, translators, currency converters. They're capable of more than just taking you from Point A to Point B. One device starts to be able to do it all."

Another factor in the rise of GPS was the removal of Selective Availability.

GPS was - and still is - a military undertaking.

To prevent GPS from being used against its creators, Selective Availability - or SA - was built in to the GPS signal. SA was an intentional mistake, random errors that could lead to inaccuracies of around 100 meters, or 300 feet for civilians receiving the GPS signal.

About six years ago, the U.S. government decided to remove SA, bringing accuracy down within the 20-meter range.

"The benefit of that is that it did make the GPS signal more precise for consumers," Myers said. "That has helped as we've gotten into the fitness market, uses such as our running and cycling products. Having that precision is paramount. It's able to pinpoint you to 20 feet, give or take."

Crystal ball time

What lies in future for GPS?

Miniaturization, most likely, is not.

After all, the units can be made as small as a large watch. Any smaller, and the screen would be unreadable.

Both Myers and Coffman think GPS units of the future simply should do more.

"I think you'll continue to see the convergence of different technologies," she said, "so you have everything on one device."

"I'd like to see them integrate everything into one handheld unit," Coffman said. "You know, like GPS, Internet, phone - everything you need, right there. I think that's the future."

A brief explanation of the Global Positioning System

What is GPS?

The Global Positioning System was designed, built, operated and maintained by the United States Department of Defense.

Dreamed up by the Pentagon in 1973, the first GPS satellite was launched in 1978. By the mid-1990s, the system - first known as the Navstar Global Positioning System - was fully operational with 24 satellites.

The 24 GPS satellites orbit at 10,600 miles above the earth, spaced so that from any point on earth, four satellites will be above the horizon.

Each satellite contains a computer, an atomic clock and a radio, and it continually broadcasts its changing position and time.

On the ground, a GPS receiver triangulates its position by getting bearings from three of the four satellites.

The result is geographic position: latitude, longitude and altitude, usually within a few meters.

Mapping GPS units then can display that position graphically.

With some units, information can be downloaded after the fact. A hike, for instance, can be downloaded and recreated on a topographic map.

Receivers for fitness enthusiasts also can include heart-rate monitors.

Units can be as small as a large watch or as big as a laptop computer.

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