Exciting GPS Improvements and Opportunities

GPS Beginnings

The beginnings of the Global Position System concept, better known as GPS, was first recognized by USA scientists in 1957. They were tracking Russia’s launch of the spacecraft, Sputnik, the first artificial satellite that orbited the earth. It was then that members of the U.S. aeronautical and military spheres realized that satellite-based positioning was technically feasible and foreseeable.

GPS Role and Benefits

GPS has become a life-changing technology. There are thousands of benefits that we enjoy every day. For example, GPS signals give accurate, concise, pinpoint information and is used to synchronize time. It can locate objects as well as humans with high accuracy. It helps you get from point A to point B. GPS systems are in your car, your watch, your smartphone. Maps, shopping, dating are just a few benefits we enjoy because of smartphones, which have GPS receivers in them.

GPS has other major ramifications on the way we live that many may not be aware of. Just to name a few: airplanes are now capable of landing on autopilot. It is used for earthquake detection and measurement, precision farming, road construction, and surveying. Law enforcement uses GPS not only to catch the bad guy but for instant dispatching and safety monitoring such as “Amber Alert”. Even banking and the stock market depend upon GPS technology.

It is estimated that GPS has generated around $1.4 trillion in economic benefits since it was made available in the 1980s. The GPS miracle is available to anyone in the world at no cost. What a wonderful time to be alive.

The Father of GPS

Bradford Parkinson is best known as the lead architect, advocate, and developer of GPS.  He is also an emeritus professor from Stanford University.  There were many who contributed to GPS as we know it today. However, I consider Brad Parkinson to be the Father of GPS and the grand orchestrator of this marvelous technology.

Along with my colleagues in the Time and Frequency Division at NBS/NIST, in Colorado, it was my privilege back in the ‘60s until I retired in 1992, to give seminars on the use of atomic clocks. Many of the Air Force people would come to those seminars as they were designing and building up the GPS.

I remember Brad well. He was then an Air Force Colonel and had attained a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He was leading the GPS development team and attended one of the classes I was teaching. I can even remember one of the questions he asked because it was so relevant since atomic clocks are the heart of GPS.

My GPS Opportunity Number One

Starting with my master’s thesis (1965), which gave birth to the Allan variance, I was able to help as the Allan variance was the metric used to assure that the atomic clocks needed for GPS met specification.   I believe the Lord inspired me in writing that thesis.

My GPS Opportunity Number Two

Because of my expertise with Atomic Clocks. I was asked to be part of a Data Analysis and Working Group (DAWG) for GPS, and we would meet monthly to access problems, performance issues, etc. as the program moved forward.  They first had three satellites that crossed over Yuma to test it.  I spent many man-years helping in the development of GPS.  I wrote a blog article explaining in five minutes how GPS works.  I got to know Brad well and was very impressed with him as a very intelligent and wise team player, and I am most grateful to count him as a friend and colleague.

Professional Honors

Brad Parkinson is a FELLOW of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which has about a half-million members.  It is the largest, scientific-papers, publishing house in the world with the goal of the “advancement of technology.”  We can thank them for cell-phones, the internet, computers, and for what was needed in the development of GPS, for example.  To become a FELLOW of the IEEE is a prestigious thing.

Last year, a friend and past President of the IEEE, Dr. John Vig, nominated me to be a FELLOW.  Several support letters were needed for the nomination.

Last week, I received notice that my nomination had been approved as one of the new FELLOWs for the year 2021. I felt to e-mail Brad to tell him of my nomination approval.

My On-Going GPS Opportunities

In the e-mail to Brad, I mentioned again a suggestion I had made many years ago. It concerned avoiding a single clock failure problem that they had in GPS. In the past, I had shared the advantages of optimally combining atomic clock readings in an algorithm as we had developed for generating official time for the USA.  In my e-mail, I also shared with Brad that I had felt bad when they had someone else write an algorithm that was far from optimum.

Brad forwarded my e-mail to current folks running GPS and working on future developments, and I immediately received back from them an invitation to help and they shared their current operational status and future plans. What they shared with me showed great progress.

Loving my country as I do, on New Year’s Day this year, I wrote a six-page e-mail to them with six suggestions.  One of them has the theoretical potential to make GPS accurate at the sub-centimeter level.  I followed up with another e-mail on how to improve GPS timing algorithmically.  GPS timing precision is now at the billionth of a second level (nanosecond), and there are ways to make it much better, more robust, and useful for the world time and frequency community as well as for navigation, position determination – like in surveying, farming, for traffic safety — and for telecommunications.

I am delighted to be able to be of help again, to assist, if I can, this outstanding team of people providing such a service to the world community.  Here I am 56 years later still able to help as I enjoy my 85th trip around the sun.  How good is that?  That trip will take you and me 365.256363004 days or 31,558,145.8 seconds.  I hope we are all using our time wisely and to enjoy this trip.

What’s Next in GPS Technology?

We live on planet earth, which is not solid.  The earth’s dynamics can be detected. Since the GPS satellites are like a giant flywheel in space, If their positions were known to sub-centimeter, then they could monitor the speed-up and slow-down of the earth’s spin rate, which is at about the (+ or -) 5 cm/day level.  Daily earth tides are at the 30 cm level.  Whether you know it or not, you are moving up and down about a foot per day due to earth tides. Depending on where you are, your diurnal movement could be more or less than that.  I hope you are not getting seasick thinking about that!

Earthquake monitoring and prediction could be enhanced significantly. Changes in ocean tides and currents could be detected. Tsunamis could perhaps be predicted before they hit a shoreline.  Precision traffic safety could be enhanced both in air, on land, and in water-ways. We have seen enormous benefits from GPS already; we see that there is a lot more in store.

GPS can give you accurate time and position.  Let us use our time and position to love and serve one another and our God who created it all for our enjoyment.  After all, God is the Greatest Scientist, as well as providing a perfect Plan of Happiness.

David W. Allan

You can download a copy of the GPS suggestions here: https://itsabouttimebook.com/7-improvement-suggestions-for-gps/