GPS for Humanity

by Laura Johnson
posted December 07, 2012

Practically everyone knows what GPS is these days, but probably not everyone is aware that it can be used to help in the fight against malaria, to track an endangered fish, or even to help deliver concrete to a construction site.

“GPS has many applications for worldwide benefit, some of which we anticipated, and others, frankly, were very surprising,” said Dr. Bradford Parkinson, former chair of Aerospace’s board of trustees and one of the principal developers of GPS.

Parkinson gave a presentation, which he dedicated to Aerospace engineers and supporters, called “GPS for Humanity” on Nov. 30 on the Los Angeles Air Force Base.

Audience members enjoyed the whirlwind talk in which Parkinson focused on applications of GPS, while also reviewing the history of the program, recognizing many individuals who made it possible, pointing out some key innovations and challenges, and just for good measure, throwing in a look at the future of GPS.

Parkinson started off by talking about the history of GPS, giving a nod to former Aerospace president Dr. Ivan Getting and other Aerospace employees who were involved.

In 1973, the DOD gave the green light to the program, but there were some major technical challenges to overcome, as well as political ones, such as the fact that the Air Force was not enthusiastic about the program in the early days.

Nonetheless, the team was successful, and according to Parkinson, GPS has become a system for humanity. It has a free signal, is available all over the world, and is very accurate. It is used not only by the military, and not just for navigation. The public also uses it to enhance productivity, to increase safety, and just to have fun.

Parkinson zipped through examples of all kinds of GPS applications, stopping to highlight a few.

“You’ve all heard the lady say ‘If possible, make a legal U-turn’ so I won’t talk about that one,” he said.

One example he gave is in the area of aviation. Parkinson said they expected to be able to use GPS for airplane navigation, but they were surprised to find out they could use it for hands-off landing as well.

They expected to be able to use GPS for land navigation, but in 1996 they found they could also use it to automatically steer a tractor to an accuracy of one inch.

In the past, a farmer might use a tractor to deposit fertilizer in rows. Naturally, there was some overlap in the rows, and therefore some wasted fertilizer. Now farmers can ensure that the tractor goes exactly where they want it to, and does not deposit any extra fertilizer. Parkinson said this results in a potential savings of about 8-10 percent.

“The economic value is very compelling,” he said.

On the subject of dirt, GPS has also been used to survey to an accuracy of one millimeter. “It’s vastly increasing our understanding of crustal motion and earthquakes,” Parkinson said.

Another area in which GPS is employed is in emergency beacons, which signal rescuers where to find a person or people in trouble.

In September 2009, a large ferry was caught on a reef in the Philippines with unfavorable weather approaching. Because of GPS, rescuers were able to arrive quickly and save all but 10 of the almost 1,000 people onboard.

GPS is used for all sorts of tracking jobs, including some lesser-known items.  Parkinson gave the example of wet concrete, which needs to be delivered in a timely fashion or it loses strength. GPS is used to track the vehicles that transport concrete, determining how long they have been on the job.

“If you are on a construction job, what you want to know is: When was that loaded and when was it actually put on my slab or into my concrete column?” he said. “This gives you a way to do that.”

A fun example of a use of GPS is geocaching, essentially a treasure hunt game using GPS, in which five million people worldwide participate.

Dr. Wanda Austin greets Dr. Bradford Parkinson after the presentation. Photo: Eric Hamburg

GPS has even gotten involved in a situation involving the Atlantic bluefin tuna, a warm-blooded fish that is endangered due to overfishing. It was argued that the Eastern Atlantic and Western Atlantic populations could be managed separately. However, GPS was used to track the boats tracking the fish and it was discovered that “the migratory paths go all the way across the Atlantic,” Parkinson said.

In the medical area, GPS can also be used to help.

“HP has developed a really nifty app in which a nurse, as soon as she finds a malaria outbreak, can quickly upload it,” Parkinson said. “And as a result the doctors can find where they should concentrate their efforts to try to arrest that outbreak of malaria. A really nice humanity application.”

After discussing all these uses of GPS, Parkinson took a look at the future of the technology, talking about the research being done in the area of driverless cars.

“It is clear to me this is another biggie that we’re going to see very soon, and it’s frankly GPS enabled,” Parkinson said.

The biggest problem Parkinson sees for GPS in the future is spectrum interference, whether illegal or licensed. The most prominent example of this issue involves a company called LightSquared that proposes to use a block of frequencies near those used by the GPS system for a broadband communications network.

Despite this issue, Parkinson’s talk highlighted the amazing uses of this fascinating technology. Whether it’s helping a farmer increase productivity or a rescuer locate someone in trouble, GPS has had a significant impact throughout the world.

Later in the day Parkinson presented the 2012 Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy to Space and Missile Systems Center Commander Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski for display on the base. The trophy was given by the National Space Club this year to the “GPS Originators Team,” which included Parkinson and several Aerospace employees and former employees.