Happy 30th Anniversary, GPS and Thank You, Brad Parkinson

By Vint Cerf

It’s difficult to believe that the first GPS II satellites were launched 30 years ago this month.

Personally, I can barely remember a time when GPS was not making nearly every part of my life easier. Not to mention Bob Lucky’s astute observation that GPS saves us all from the thorny problem of returning those large, foldable roadmaps to their original shape and size.

We all enjoy the convenience of GPS because Marconi Fellow Brad Parkinson ensured that the technology was eventually accessible to consumers, as well as to the original military users.

In addition to multitudes of apps that use GPS, Marconi Society Young Scholars and Board members have been part of some highly innovative initiatives:

  • Young Scholar Ken Pesyna did foundational work in centimeter-accurate GPS technology that is moving the automated and semi-automated car industry forward.
  • Board member Camilla Fritze is on staff of Panthera, an organization dedicated to preserving the world’s wild cats and their ecosystems. Panthera uses its technology-driven PoacherCam to discourage and help apprehend poachers.
  • Our Celestini Program students in Ghana are using GPS technology to reduce traffic accidents and deaths.

Like so many innovations in communications, the best is yet to come for GPS. Here are some of the upcoming applications that I’m following with interest:

  1. Precision farming in which individual plants (e.g. trees, vines) can be tracked by their GPS location.
  2. Tracking reindeer herds and the location of individual animals.
  3. Monitoring geophysical processes and changes such as the San Andreas fault and the bulge under Yellowstone Park.
  4. Disaster recovery, especially where property damage is extensive and property boundary locations need to be re-established.

The success of GPS has spawned other initiatives such as indoor navigation in which GPS signals are not available or severely attenuated. For this, we need new localization information, possibly using indoor location annunciators, WiFi-assisted navigation and other related techniques to replicate the ease of outdoor navigation provided by GPS in indoor scenarios. One can readily imagine an enhanced 911 (E911) that would provide emergency responders with precise location information including Z-axis (room and floor in a hotel, for instance).

There is even an interstellar GPS notion being pursued using pulsars in other galaxies whose location is relatively fixed, at least over short intervals measured in decades or even longer.

Equally important to navigation is the GPS timing signal that is critical to our mobile communication systems today. Long Term Evolution (LTE) and 5G are bound to high quality timing information to manage the flow of transmissions through mobile base stations.

Brad’s vision has triggered an avalanche of creative thinking for decades and will continue to do so as we uncover more ways to apply fine-grained knowledge of when and where we are.