Stanford Professor Bradford Parkinson, Father of GPS, to Receive the 2016 Marconi Prize

Bradford Parkinson Marconi Prize 2016

Mountain View, CA, May 16, 2016

Dr. Bradford Parkinson, a Stanford professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, will receive the 2016 Marconi Prize, a pinnacle honor in the field of information and communication science. The $100,000 prize, given annually, recognizes major advances in the field which benefit humanity.

Parkinson’s contributions to the development of GPS helped create a vast global utility that provides positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) information to the world and is a vital part of today’s global information infrastructure.

GPS has been transformative in virtually every aspect of how people work and live, and in their use of time and spatial information. But its development was very nearly derailed and the Air Force would have abandoned its development had they not been forced to fund it. Despite their opposition, they ended up selecting someone to lead the project who was uniquely qualified to make it a success.

A Lt. General Kenneth Schultz, the Space and Missile System Office (SAMSO) Commander, had ordered Colonel Parkinson to his office in November, 1972.  The General’s purpose was to discuss working on the floundering USAF program, called 621B, that was attempting to create a global navigation service using satellites.  Parkinson wasn’t interested – with good reason. “I already had a super job with a hundred million dollars of play money every year that I could spend on anything that related to ballistic missile re-entry,” he says.  Meanwhile, the incipient GPS program was mired in technical challenges and in competition with other ideas within the Dept. of Defense.

The General was insistent, but Parkinson, a rising star and perhaps the top military expert on inertial navigation, had just one question:  if he accepted the assignment, would he be in charge of it? When the General said, “I can’t promise that,” Parkinson said, “Then I don’t volunteer.”

Fortunately, Schultz recognized Parkinson was perfect for the job. Parkinson’s entire career had prepared him for this project, from his study of navigation at the U.S. Naval Academy to his Master of Science study at MIT—just when Charles Draper was making his mark on inertial navigation—to his subsequent PhD research at Stanford University. Parkinson even had taught future astronauts about satellite design and operations, and he understood navigation from the inside, as a Mission Commander flying combat missions in Southeast Asia. By the time he was ten feet out the door, the General had called personnel and initiated his transfer—giving the young colonel the authority he had requested.  But with sinking heart, Parkinson realized he had inherited a lot of good underlying thinking, but so much infighting that any progress had ground to a halt.

Enter what Parkinson calls “an amazing coincidence.”  Dr. Mal Currie, the senior-most person in the entire Dept. of Defense for development, had just been appointed and was moving to Washington from Los Angeles.  However, he needed to travel back and forth to Los Angeles for several weekends to organize his family’s move. To make it official, he would stop by the SAMSO (Space and Missile Systems Organization) for a briefing, since all USAF ICBMs and Satellites were developed there.  So for several weekends he arrived at the Los Angeles Air Force Station to get such a briefing. General Schultz, the SAMSO Commander, soon ran out of top level discussion topics – so someone had the bright idea to send Dr. Currie down to discuss 621B with Parkinson, suspecting that would take up the rest of the day.

“Here I am, a brand new Colonel, given uninterrupted time with the senior-most development leader in the whole Defense Department, about five levels above me, and I have all afternoon. He is brilliant; he is a nuclear physicist. We soon got down to technical stuff. I brought out this big stack of charts and a small projector, using the wall as a screen,” Parkinson remembers. By the end of the afternoon, Parkinson had convinced him GPS was a great idea—but the system needed tweaking.

Having built some support, Parkinson kept plugging. He asked for—and got—some of the brightest minds in the Air Force to help him, using General Schultz’s pipeline in Military Personnel. He encountered opposition everywhere; even some veiled threats. Finally, in August of 1973 he stood before a sea of DoD General officers and Officials in Washington.  He presented the Air force position on GPS—the somewhat-flawed one he had inherited—for a thumbs up or down vote. It was thumbs down; the Air Force preferred to build more planes.

Envisioning his career in ruins, he was alarmed when Dr. Currie, who had chaired the meeting, called him to his office immediately afterward. “You and I know you inherited this program, but there are some improvements you can make. I’d like you to make those improvements and come right back to another decision meeting,” Currie said.

Parkinson took the challenge. He called a meeting of a small group of his brightest team members, the ones he had hand-picked. It was not to be held in LA, where everyone was entrenched in the original thinking, but in Washington DC. In the deserted Pentagon, over Labor Day weekend, the only occupants of the largest office building in the world would be Parkinson’s band of brothers in the 5th floor conference room.

They worked nonstop to change the proposal. The 621B fundamentals were sound, but several technical details had to be modulated to make it the GPS we know today. The team working that weekend 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. Use of such clocks had been advocated by both 621B and the Navy.

They also confirmed the over-all 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.

Parkinson went back to Currie with his revised proposal in December 1973, and this time it was thumbs up.  Just 44 months after contract award they launched the first satellite—probably a record for any military program. Today, there are 30 operational Global Positioning satellites circling the planet.

We can thank Parkinson for far more than the technology itself.  Every decision he made; every argument he won, ensured that ultimately, 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. He is proud that his team had designed GPS to be used by civilians, world-wide, from the start.

After retiring from military service as an Air Force Colonel, Parkinson inspired a new generation of GPS scientists at Stanford, where he is a now a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and other leading engineering schools, helping push hundreds of enhancements and new applications. At his Research Center, he and his allied faculty and students developed the concept and first demonstration of the FAA’s now-operational GPS integrity system, called WAAS.  With his students (and sponsored by John Deere) they demonstrated the first GPS auto-guided Farm Tractor, now an $800M world-wide GPS farming business.  In 1992 they demonstrated the first ever completely blind landing of a commercial airline (and repeated it for 110 landings!).

“With immense dedication, Dr. Parkinson overcame technical and bureaucratic obstacles in order to champion the early development, and later enhancement through modernization, of GPS,” said Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We now take for granted GPS technology, whether our phone is providing turn-by-turn directions or enjoying GPS-time-synchronized communications. However, the concept of using an orbiting spacecraft’s transmitting radio signals as a solution for all-weather global navigation (positioning and timing) faced enormous obstacles during its development phase in the 1970s. As the program director for the Air Force, Dr. Parkinson and his fellow engineers were pushing the state of the art.”

“Today, there are billions of GPS receivers in the world,” says Marconi Society Vice Chairman Vint Cerf, “GPS is one of the most under-rated advances in the history of information science.  It’s taken for granted, but Parkinson was on the ground floor of enabling air, space and terrestrial guidance and navigation with GPS. His vision for the use of timing signals resulted in cellular telephone improvements, better Internet traffic control, power grid management and a myriad of important financial applications. Dr. Parkinson’s achievements have been game-changing.”

Parkinson will receive the Marconi Prize at a private ceremony at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, on November 2, 2016. He joins a select group of scientists whose work in communications and information technology has led to major advances and provided social, economic and cultural benefits for humanity. Past winners of the prize, established in 1975 by Gioia Marconi Braga, daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, have included Internet pioneers Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn and Len Kleinrock, digital trailblazers Irwin Jacobs and Henry Samueli, encryption pioneers Ron Rivest, Marty Hellman and Whit Diffie, MIMO inventor A. J. Paulraj and cell phone pioneer Marty Cooper, among others.

About the Marconi Society

The Marconi Society was established in 1974 through an endowment set up by Gioia Marconi Braga, daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, the Nobel laureate who invented radio (wireless telegraphy). It is best known for the Marconi Prize, awarded annually to an outstanding individual/s whose scope of work and influence emulate the principle of “creativity in service to humanity” that inspired Marconi. Through symposia, conferences, forums and publications, the Marconi Society promotes awareness of major innovations in communication theory, technology and applications with particular attention to understanding how they change and benefit society.