Throughout history, man has continually studied the world around him in an attempt to better navigate the globe. Many centuries ago, explorers navigated by using spatial clues, such as the position of the sun during the day and the position of the stars at night. Eventually instruments were invented that improved this type of navigation. While fairly accurate for their time, these instruments often left explorers well off their mark, helplessly lost. They usually had to rely on landmarks to help determine location. Inventions of instruments like the compass continued to improve navigation, but accuracy was still severely limited. Amazingly enough, some hikers still rely on compass readings to determine location even today.
As technology increased, man began to use advances like radar and sonar to determine relative position. For these techniques, a signal (radio and sound, respectively) is emitted and bounced back when it strikes an object. The machines will then calculate relative position based on the time it takes for a signal to return and the speed at which the signal travels in the given medium, usually air or water. This information was combined with raw data radioed from navigators on the battlefield. The military used rooms full of people who compiled and analyzed these huge piles of location information. They would then produce maps and displays for military commanders. This was very tedious and slow work. In fact, this system was often too slow to be of practical use, since by the time people were able to interpret and display what was happening, it was too late. Today, such techniques have been replaced by the Global Positioning System. The use of GPS satellites to calculate relative and absolute position anywhere on the globe is a direct replacement of previous methods.
Enhancement of Activities
The vast majority of enhancement impact occurs within the United States Military. The Global Positioning System represents significant automation in current navigation. The increased accuracy of GPS leads to an increased productivity and into the second stage of automation. However, this increased productivity leads to a replacement of people. No longer does the military need rooms full of people pouring over navigational charts and analyzing satellite and radar images. Many aircraft utilized crews that included a navigator, whose only job was to constantly calculate position, bearing, and other navigational information. While some crews still require this position, most new aircraft are designed to use GPS receivers and thus eliminate the need for someone to manually calculate this information. However, despite this replacement of people in implementation, the system also provides a different set of jobs. For example, a large number of people are now involved in design, implementation, and maintenance of the evolving system. Lockheed Martin currently has hundreds of employees working on the next generation of GPS. The military also employs a large number of people at Shriver Air Force Base in Colorado Springs to maintain the health and integrity of the current system.2
Previously used systems such as radar and sonar navigation have one major drawback: they can be detected by the enemy. Since these methods involve emitting a signal to determine location, others can determine the location of the emission and therefore the location of the craft. This utilizes a process known as active ranging. The Global Positioning System is much different. It is a passive ranging system. Each receiver retrieves data from numerous satellites, and then computes overall position based on time differentials between the different satellites. Distance can be calculated based on the speed at which the signal travels. The system then uses this distance, along with the relative and absolute position of each satellite as it corresponds to certain known locations. This passive ranging method is a significant technological advance and allows military units to calculate position without detection. The United States military can now navigate the battlefield like never before, maintaining an incredible strategic advantage. In fact, the military often has more accurate location data on the enemy then the enemy commanders. This increase in information accuracy increases the safety and efficiency of the entire United States Military.
Since GPS was originally a United States Department of Defense project, the greatest impact of GPS remains in military operations. In times of war, the military can navigate all of its troops and equipment with far greater efficiency than ever before. Nearly each and every vehicle in the field is constantly communicating with GPS satellites to provide up to date location data. This offers a tremendous advantage, especially in an unfamiliar environment like the desert in the Persian Gulf region. Seemingly featureless terrain is no longer a major hindrance to navigation, as the use of landmarks becomes almost trivial.3 Each soldier can immediately find out where they are and which direction they need to travel in, how far they need to go, and other information. Huge convoys of supply vehicles can be driven by a only a handful of people. The remaining vehicles can be controlled automatically based on GPS data compared to the manually driven vehicles. The cruise missiles that attacked Iraq in the past year were all navigated with GPS, and allowed the military to efficiently destroy enemy targets without risking pilots and Iraqi civilians. In Operation Desert Storm, a United States Air Force pilot was shot down over enemy territory. Each pilot had been equipped with a hand held GPS receiver, and this pilot was able to use his receiver to find the fastest route out of the enemy territory. In this particular case the pilotís life may have been saved by this navigational device.4
Ability to Perform New Functionality
Although initially a military project, GPS use has spread to the commercial sector. There is a wide range of new applications currently being developed for commercial use. In fact, most of the new functionality provided by the Global Positioning System is in the commercial sector. Many commercial companies are now selling hand held GPS devices, which opens an entirely new market. Each of these companies in turn employs a certain number of people to develop, market, and sell their product. As prices continue to fall and commercial use increases, many new jobs will be created to handle the increased demand for this product. Commercial airplanes will have more accurate readings and new computer systems to help them avoid disasters, and ships lost at see will be instantly located by emergency GPS beacons. These applications are sure to save lives. Hikers can carry hand held units to navigate difficult terrain, and search and rescue teams use GPS to manage massive rescue operations. Recently, automobile manufacturers have begun to include GPS receivers built into the dashboard of certain car models to help drivers navigate the streets.5 Innovations such as these help the average person arrive at a given destination more safely and quickly. Another relatively new application includes the placement of a computer chip into the engine block of new cars. This is designed as an anti-theft device so that if a car with this GPS chip is stolen, the authorities can quickly and accurately locate the vehicle.
Some new navigational applications are a bit more trivial. For example, many upscale golf courses include receivers in each golf cart. This way, a golfer can drive to their ball and get precise information about the distance and direction to the hole. Some ski resorts offer the rental of GPS units to track the path and speed of a skier. After a day of skiing, users can load the information into a computer program to produce a visual display of their daily adventures. Such recreational use of GPS is growing rapidly, as is the impact of the system on such activities.
Some of these innovations remain somewhat controversial. Some people are beginning to fear that GPS may lead to a loss of privacy. For example, if the authorities can find your can when it is stolen, can someone not find it at any time? Could someone not track every move that your car makes? These are questions not easily answered. As with most new technology, there are possible negative impacts. With the increase of accuracy in navigation and location determination may come a loss of personal privacy. While the current system does not raise all that many privacy issues, some have openly voiced concerns about future implementations and use. For example, some fear that in the future some governments may use GPS to track certain segments of its population, possibly dissidents or people viewed as threats to the current regime. While this may seem far fetched, keep in mind that the mere idea of this kind of satellite navigational system would have seemed impossible only a few decades ago.
Probably the most controversial aspect of GPS is its application in wartime. Make no mistake about it; the Global Positioning System is and will remain a powerful weapon for the United States military. It allows the average soldier to become a more effective killing machine, makes missiles more accurate, and allows aircraft and naval craft to maneuver with deadly efficiency. While GPS increases the safety of each and every member of the United States military, it decidedly decreases the welfare of any country or group in opposition. This type of use must be monitored and must not be abused. The system is a powerful tool, but remains dangerous in the wrong hands. This use of computer technology to more effectively destroy an enemy is troubling and raises many ethical and moral issues. While GPS does in fact save many lives, from avoiding disasters to guiding soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, it can also be used to kill.
The Global Positioning System is indeed one of the most incredible innovations of the century. It is constantly becoming more and more common in various aspects of our society. As the years go by, GPS will become more and more a part of everyday life. In fact, some predict that within the next five to ten years, GPS receivers will become as common as cellular phones and pagers.6 The impact of this computer system is far reaching and ever growing, and we must remain vigilant to ensure that the abuse of such a system does not occur. GPS greatly increases our knowledge of our surroundings, opening doors to places man has never been. For the most part, the system is a tremendous asset to the country and in fact the world. The benefits far outweigh the risks and dangers. However, like any great advancement in military technology, the Global Positioning System raises as many questions as it answers.
Last updated 99/03/24
© Dan Wroten, 1999.