Bradford Parkinson

Brad Parkinson

Awarded the Marconi Prize in 2016

Cited for technical leadership in the design and development of the Global Positioning System

By inventing GPS, one of the far-reaching technologies of our time, Dr. Bradford Parkinson has inspired new markets and enabled countless improvements in the lives of consumers and businesses globally.

While today GPS is taken for granted, Parkinson was on the ground floor of enabling air, space and terrestrial guidance and navigation with the technology. His vision for the use of timing signals has resulted in cellular telephone improvements, better Internet traffic control, power grid management and a myriad of important financial applications.

Parkinson was singularly qualified to create the GPS capability that would change the world. A U.S. Naval Academy graduate who had studied navigation and held an M.S. from MIT and a Ph.D. from Stanford University, he taught future astronauts about satellite design and operations. He understood navigation from the inside, as a Mission Commander flying combat missions in Southeast Asia. In addition he led the Department of Astronautics and Computer Science at the US Air Force Academy.

In 1972, he was ordered to work on an obscure and floundering program called 621B. While its fundamentals were sound, several technical details had to be modulated to make it the GPS we know today. His team confirmed the use of the then-unique digital signal structure called Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) that had been tested by 621B. This allowed the signals used by all the satellites to broadcast on the same frequency and insured that location precision (eventually to millimeters) could be achieved. Equally important, they decided every satellite had to carry redundant atomic clocks, so that signal timing was accurate even when on the other side of the world.

The team also confirmed the overall GPS system concept from 621B: The user would measure the range to four satellites, with knowledge of the exact time they broadcast their signal and their location, then the user could triangulate the receiver’s position as well as determine time to nanoseconds. GPS was built on this premise—and built in record time, just 44 months after the contract award.

Through his passionate advocacy, Parkinson ensured that people everywhere in the world would benefit from an astounding range of applications, from communications and navigation to power grids, air traffic control, financial networks and more. He testified to Congress on the importance of open access and his team designed GPS to be used by civilians, worldwide, from the start.

After retiring from military service as an Air Force Colonel, Parkinson inspired a new generation of GPS scientists at Stanford University. He led the development of many innovative applications of GPS, including the use of GPS for “blind” commercial jet landings, fully automatic GPS control of farm tractors, and the pioneering augmentation of highly accurate GPS (WAAS).

Parkinson, now Edward C. Wells Professor Emeritus in the School of Engineering at Stanford University, has also been the CEO of two companies and serves on many boards. He is the editor/author of the AIAA Award winning 2 Volumes: “GPS Theory and Applications” and is author or coauthor of over 80 technical papers. Parkinson is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Among his many awards is the Draper Prize of the National Academy of Engineering, considered by some to be the “Engineering Nobel.”