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GPS Systems

Aside from military usage, GPS systems are currently being utilized in cars, boats and handheld devices.

Some automobiles come equipped with in-dash GPS systems. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
Some automobiles come equipped with in-dash GPS systems.

GPS Systems

From traveling salesmen to those who simply have a poor sense of direction, global positioning systems, or GPS systems, offer navigational and mapping capabilities that combine tracking and computer technology for pinpoint accuracy. Once used exclusively by the military and cleared for civilian use in the 1980s, GPS systems are being utilized in everything from cars and boats to cell phones and laptop computers.

How GPS Systems Work

GPS systems use data sent by satellites in orbit to determine an exact location. According to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM), there are 24 GPS satellites operated by the U.S. Air Force in use today, with 12 of these satellites sending signals on a 12-hour cycle. These satellites send signals to GPS receivers, which are the units installed in cars, boats or used as handheld devices. These units are programmed with a 12-channel receiver, which picks up these satellite signals to deliver precise information regarding location by measuring the distance between the satellites and the receiver. These coordinates determine position with a high degree of accuracy. Many high-end GPS systems can pinpoint locations within one meter accuracy.

Types of GPS Systems

Excluding those used for military purposes, there are currently three main types of GPS systems:

  • Car
  • Marine
  • Handheld


Car GPS systems are by the far the most popular in use today. GPS systems used in cars can be purchased separately, as portable units, or can be installed by car manufacturers as in-dash devices. These systems use navigational programming with mapping capabilities to provide directional support for drivers.

Marine GPS systems are designed to be used in boats. These devices are generally waterproof and also have active sonar. They are used for fishing, tracking and other boating activities.

Handheld GPS systems can be either mapping or non-mapping and are used when hiking, biking, hunting or doing other outdoor activities. These devices are usually palm-sized and easy to carry around. Most recently, some cell phones and Personal Data Assistants (PDAs) come equipped with GPS systems.

Developments in GPS Systems

One of the most recent developments in GPS systems has been a system designed for the blind. Using a Braille personal data assistant along with GPS software, this device enables blind or visually impaired individuals to utilize GPS technology. In 2007, Medion, a manufacturer of GPS devices, introduced a system including a fingerprint sensor, which allows only a particular user or users to activate the device, helping to thwart theft of the system.

The Future of GPS Systems

Advances in technology will lead to many improvements and upgrades to GPS systems. Developments are currently being made for GPS systems to utilize wireless capabilities to create an in-vehicle interface that will allow users to access the Internet and cell phones as well as navigational software and even download audio and video files on their GPS systems. Also in the development stages is an Advanced Driver Assistance System, which will have the capability to activate cruise control, a warning system to prevent collisions and offer advice when to change lanes and even determine if the driver is falling asleep at the wheel by analyzing driving patterns.

According to the most recent data from PC World, smart phones with built-in GPS systems may eventually replace portable GPS systems or PNDs (Portable Navigation Devices), with sales of the former rising while those of the latter dropping as of 2008.

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