What is GPS? How Global Positioning Systems Work

What is GPS

It might surprise you, but GPS has been around since the 1970’s. However, it was only in the year 2000 when ‘selective availability’ was turned off, that navigation in the modern world really started to change. With in-built GPS navigation now in our smartphones, vehicles, and even watches, it’s almost impossible to get lost these days.

So, what exactly is GPS and how does it work? Let’s take a look at the inner workings of the world’s foremost navigation technology.


GPS: Global Positioning Systems

The term ‘GPS system’ is actually a misnomer, it really is an advanced solution with a multitude of parts. More than just a single tool, GPS is made up of a collection of devices, satellites, and other connections that exist all over the world in different locations, both on ground and in space, working together to provide accurate location, time, speed, direction, and altitude information.

Apart from being a key part of any navigation aid, GPS lends itself to multiple alternate uses that require accurate timing, such as traffic signal timing, and even ensuring our mobile phone technology works reliably.


How Does GPS Work?

GPS requires three elements to work — GPS satellites in orbit around the Earth, a GPS receiver on the Earth, and the signals that is sent between them.

As the GPS satellites orbit the planet earth, each GPS satellites transmit a unique ID signal plus information on where the other GPS satellites are. These signals are picked up by a GPS receiver on the ground that decodes the data to identify which satellite they belong to and the corresponding data.

Using this data, a GPS receiver is able to calculate the distance it is from different satellites to obtain its exact location. A minimum of four satellite signals are needed to obtain a location, which it does using triangulation, but with over 30 GPS satellites in orbit, devices usually receive eight or more signals at a time.

GPS receiver technology is now commonly found in personal devices such as smartphones, watches, tracking tags, as well as most modern cars and after market vehicle fleet management technology. This is how you can know exactly where you are on a navigation app, as well as key information like how fast you are travelling and the next turn to take.


When Was the Satellite System Created?

The GPS satellite system was first initiated by the U.S. Department of Defence in 1973 with an initial fleet of 24 satellites. Although GPS was initially created for military use, this was modified to allow public access in the 1980s.

The GPS satellite network established by the USA is no longer the only network around the Earth — more countries have since launched their own satellite navigation systems that offer similar functionality, such as Russia’s GLONASS, and the European Union’s Galileo. The modern ‘GPS’ receiver will likely be configured to decode more than one system, increasing the accuracy of its position solution under difficult conditions.


How is GPS Utilised?

The biggest use of GPS is for location determination and navigation. Millions of commuters today make use of an application to get from one place to another, whether it’s by car, public transport, or on foot.

Apart from personal use, GPS has many industrial applications. It’s use in fleet telematics helps trucking fleets optimise their routes and track delivery progress of millions of parcels a day, and with its ability to accurately track locations it provides remote workers with a layer of safety in the case of emergencies.

However, the use of GPS for only locations is the tip of the iceberg — it is how the information it supplies and how this is interpreted that really drives how we can leverage the information. For example, GPS data can be used to generate map data that is useful for researchers to monitor changes in the environment or keep track of ecosystems. Modern agriculture benefits from the use of GPS technology to pinpoint crop areas that are suitable for planting or harvesting, helping to maximise yields and reduce resource waste.


How Accurate is GPS Data in 2024? 

Most GPS data that you receive through commercially sold devices like your smartphone are accurate within 5-10 metres. For general everyday use, this level of accuracy is sufficient.

Dedicated GPS tracking devices, on the other hand, are equipped with chipsets that are more capable of performing faster calculations based on received satellite signals. These devices offer greater location accuracy of up to 2 metres and can often integrate with platforms that can track multiple devices at a time.

Vehicle Fleet GPS Tracking Devices are the best example of this and are used by businesses to optimise their operations, from enhancing delivery routes to reducing fuel costs or poor driving behaviour.


The Future of GPS

GPS devices have operated on the 3G network for the past two decades. With the rise in the adoption of the much faster 4G network by telecommunication providers across Australia and the world, the existing 3G network is slated to shut down. Beyond 4G, the upcoming 5G network, boasting even higher data transmission capabilities.

This means that GPS technology all over the world is about to receive a major upgrade, and businesses that are currently using devices that only operate on the 3G network will need to make the switch in the next year.


Learn More with Netstar Australia

GPS technology is constantly on the move. Finding the best way to leverage GPS technology in different industries and businesses comes down to having a solid understanding of what it does, and how it can be applied.

As Australia’s Leading Telematics Provider, Netstar Australia offers a variety of telematics solutions that utilise GPS to manage fleets, track assets, and keep workers safe. To learn more about our technology, capabilities, and solutions, get in touch with Netstar Australia today.