GPS Marks the Spot

After talking with Dr. Robert Anemone about how he uses satellite imagery and GPS technology to help locate dinosaur fossils, my photographer and I got back in our car, pushed the “home” button on the GPS device in the vehicle, and hit the road back to the UNC-TV studios.

And that’s when the thought struck me.

GPS, or Global Positioning System, technology is so common we’ve all started to take it for granted. It wasn’t always that way. In fact, GPS systems that are easily available to the consumer are still relatively new. Remember folding maps? Remember trying to find locations with those big, balky map books called an atlas? Remember the flip map almost every family used on vacation called a TripTik? You can still get all of those paper-based travel aides, although more and more the world is shifting to GPS technology for almost everything. So I thought it would be interesting to give a brief history lesson of this technology we’ve all come to rely on to find everything from the location of dinosaur bones to a restaurant to a friend’s house for a get together.

NavstarThe Global Positioning System used to be known as Navstar Global Positioning System. It was designed and built by the Department of Defense, which still operates and maintains it.

The Pentagon first conceived of the idea of using GPS technology for tracking troops and finding locations in the early 1970s while they were trying to develop a satellite system that was both reliable and accurate. In 1978, the first GPS satellite was launched. By the mid 1990s the entire system was operational with 24 satellites. The federal government continues to update the system.

But it was a public safety concern that prompted the decision to install GPS technology in cell phones. It was mandated by a Federal Communications Commission ruling in 1994. Before that, emergency responders and 911 operators could only track the location of callers who used land-line telephones. But as it became clear that more and more people were using cell phones, the agency required wireless carriers to find a way for emergency responders to locate mobile 911 callers. Wireless carriers decided to use their cell towers to comply with the ruling. That not only made it easier to respond to emergency situations, it also opened the door for entrepreneurs to begin to market products to cell phone users.

Just 10 years after the FCC rule was approved, a company called Google (you might've heard of it) bought a little-known mapping company in Australia called Where 2 Technologies. Google also bought a U.S.-based satellite photography company called Keyhole. The following year, Google unveiled Google Maps, which is now the most widely used mobile app in the world.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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