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Seems Like Only Yesterday

Glen Gibbons
Perhaps we could turn an earlier generation’s aphorism on its head: don’t trust any GNSS under 30.

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Oh, how fast they grow up!

Sons. Daughters. Satellite systems.

Why, it seems like only yesterday when I first met the Global Positioning System in 1989, already a strapping young constellation of 11 — 11 satellites, 11 years since the first launch.

And now it’s been 30 years — come February 22 — since a GPS space vehicle, SVN01 PRN04, lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1978.

In the grand scheme of things, 30 years might not seem like a lot. But in the world of technology and human events, three decades confer hoary venerability and elder status on a system that’s bigger and better than ever.

Consider some of the changes that Time has wrought in the interval since that Atlas rocket lifted off from the California desert floor with something completely new on board. The fall of a physical wall dividing East from West in Europe. The fall of a political wall in South Africa dividing black from white.

Transformation of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency computer network into a globe-spanning Internet. Untethering of personal communications from wires and fixed sites. Digital everything.

Rise of the European Union. Collapse of the Soviet Union and the resurrection of Russia as a global power. The emergence of China as — in the now-popular phraseology — the factory floor of the world.

Yes, a lot can happen in 30 years. But none of those changes (except probably the Internet) has had quite the persistent, pervasive effect as the evolution of GPS from an obscure acronym into an omnipresent feature of daily life.

The ever-optimistic ABI Research now predicts 900 million GPS unit sales by 2013. The author of this issue’s Working Papers column mentions Googling “UAV” and getting 2 million Internet citations. I just Googled “GPS” and uncovered 309 million URLs in 0.5 seconds. Even filtering out the references to Gap jeans (NYSE) and general practitioners (GPs), GPS is taking up a lot of bandwidth these days.

f imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the creators of GPS — and it was a gene pool of hundreds, not single parentage — should be blushing furiously at the expanding universe of GNSS systems and augmentations. Seems like everybody wants one now, even if it means breaking the law of diminishing returns at some point.

And all this GNSS envy began with GPS.

Of course, it can be argued that imitation isn’t really the highest form of flattery — theft is. And, as surrounds any IP-rich innovation, piracy is an issue that GPS and all GNSSes must face as long as individuals and institutions seek shortcuts to success. Perhaps we could turn an earlier generation’s aphorism on its head: don’t trust any GNSS under 30.

But subsequent systems, as long as they remain compatible, can widen the trail that GPS has blazed, bolster the GNSS resource as a whole, and stimulate GPS’s own innovations.

The course that GPS has run — and continues to race along into the future — has not been easy, however inevitable the rise of this new utility appears in retrospect. It was well into the 1990s before the threat of closing down the system was put to rest. And an inclination to privatize GPS may still lurk about the corridors of government and corporate power.

GPS governance and operational policies remain a bramble patch of competing institutional interests, and far-sighted funding of maintenance & operations — let alone reliable modernization budgets — will probably always be a work in progress.

Nonetheless, GPS unquestionably has a future at least as long as its past. The U.S. National Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Architecture project that is sketching out a “should-be” mix of capabilities 25 years from now has GPS inescapably at its core.

GPS has achieved a buzzword cachet that will one day turn into as clichéd a familiarity as indoor plumbing and incandescent lights. The song that GPS’s Air Force stewards set to music 30 years ago is running through our heads louder than ever today.

The beat goes on and on. And so does GPS.

Meet up with Glen Gibbons at the 2008 U.S. Institute of Navigation National Technical Meeting in San Diego, California, USA on January 28-30 and at the Munich Satellite Navigation Summit 2008 in Munich, Germany on February 19-21.

Copyright © 2017 Gibbons Media & Research LLC, all rights reserved.

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