GPS – Do you take it for Granted?

Ah, the sun rising every morning, gravity keeping us grounded and ever-available GPS – the things we take for granted!

Many readers are probably (hopefully) saying “Hey wait – the sun rising and gravity are due to pure universal physics, GPS doesn’t fit with them. My point exactly! The Global Positioning System is a complex man-made system of satellites orbiting the earth in precise orbits and transmitting precise timing signals back to receivers on the earth. It is complex from a technical perspective and also from a management/political perspective. There is a lot to do to keep it working and therefore a lot that can go wrong. There are a lot of things that are just plain out of the control of those using the GPS signals to figure out where on this world they are.

The GPS system has been around for many years now and has been remarkably reliable. Well maybe it is not so remarkable when one remembers that the system originated as a U.S military system. In the early days of GPS the highest resolution was reserved for military applications and the signals provided  to commercial applications were much less accurate. Who is to say that such a selective degradation couldn’t/wouldn’t be enacted again in the future. Given the economic importance of GPS today how can you not consider it as a potential target in times of conflict. There are also of course the purely natural risks to these satellites such as being damaged by solar radiation or hit  by space debris.

GPS is not the only means of determining location. For example, location can be estimated by triangulation of radio signals from terrestrial radio towers (of precisely known locations). Mobile phone systems can use this method, but not to the accuracy expected from GPS-based systems. There are also alternate GPS-like systems from Russia, China, the EU and India, but the frequencies, signal formats and global coverage cannot be assumed to be the same as GPS.

The point is that users of GPS, and particularly those in a public safety or emergency management capacity, should have a Plan B in place, just in case the GPS can not be relied upon. Have you thought about it? Could your organization function without knowing where your assets (e.g. vehicles or personnel) are?




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