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Private to Prevalent: How GPS Went From a Private Military Project to Being a Vital Part of Everyday Life

The history of GPS is varied and has a lot of unexpected twists and turns. Let’s dive in and take a look at its journey and how it became available to consumers –allowing us to do what we do today: offer easy-to-use GPS tracking to over 300,000 customers. 

History of GPS

Origins of GPS come from the Sputnik era of early satellites and the discovery of the Doppler effect. This is the tracking of a satellite based on the shifts in its radio signal, as it moved. Once you know the Doppler shift of several satellites, it allows you to locate an earthbound object based on these shifts. 

In the US, the earliest developments of what would become GPS were led by the US Navy, who wanted a system that would allow them to track the US Submarine fleet as it crisscrossed the world's oceans. These tests were successful and over time they were built upon by the Department of Defense, DoD. In the 1970s, the DoD wanted to take this early testing and proven concept and turn it into a stable system used for navigation, rather than purely for location. To do this, they launched the first NAVSTAR satellite in 1978, eventually having a full 24 satellite system in place by 1993. 

When & why GPS opened to the public 

There are two key events that made this government develop and use tech widely available to everyday customers. The first was the 1983 shoot down of Korean Airlines Flight 007. This was a commercial flight from NYC to Seoul that, unbeknownst to the crew, drifted off course over the Soviet Union. The plane was subsequently intercepted by a Quartet of Soviet fight aircraft and was shot down. 

This incident is covered here, in detail. There is a myriad of Cold War details and other intricacies beyond the scope of this piece, the key takeaways were the immediate response to the opening of technology to assist in civil aviation. 

The aircraft black box was turned over by the Soviet Union 9 years after the incident. The data showed that the crew did not know that they were off course, and the first indication of trouble was when the plane was struck by the missile that brought it down. This level of navigational error led to the requirement that long-range military radar is used to assist with managing civilian aircraft and air traffic. In addition, President Reagan opened up GPS tech to the civilian world less than two weeks after the incident. 

Tragedy can be a great driver of technological advances, and this example is no different. There were no plans in the US to release GPS tech to the public, at the time. Only a tragedy that could have been prevented by a worldwide navigation system - and help prevent future tragedies, changed this course or at least accelerated it. 

Selective availability & accuracy of GPS

Now, this public release of GPS was not without caveats. The major one, which keep the throttle limited on the public capabilities of GPS, was the fact that the Reagan administration scrambled the accuracy of the publicly available system to about 100 meters. This kept it useful for large-scale issues, like airliners traveling vast distances but kept a lid on the usage to navigate smaller distances, like your drive to the store for instance. This was called “selective availability”, and it made sure the tech was inaccurate enough to the truly useful. The reasoning behind this decision was that the military was concerned that enemies could obtain off-the-shelf GPS receivers and use them against the US.  

This all changed when the Clinton administration decided to remove selective availability and make the GPS system more responsive to civilian and commercial needs. To quote the President’s goals for the increased functionality of GPS : 

“...encourage acceptance and integration of GPS into peaceful civil, commercial and scientific applications worldwide; and to encourage private sector investment in and the use of … GPS technologies and services. To meet these goals, I committed the U.S. to discontinuing the use of (selective availability)…”

This was a shift in policy not based on a tragedy, but based on the advice of many trusted advisors. Government departments of State, Transportation, Commerce, and the director of the CIA advised the President that selective availability hindered many more things than it helped. The decision was also made easier by the acknowledgment that the US military had demonstrated the ability to deny GPS signals on a regional basis when US security was threatened. This fact eliminated the main spec for using selective availability. This meant that civilian GPS applications became ten times more accurate than before, unlocking all the modern uses we have today. 

The final nail in the coffin of selective availability was a 2007 government decision, in which they stipulated that future GPS satellites would no longer have selective availability as a feature, making the decision permanent. 

Final thoughts: How we know GPS today

Since these two decisions, the frontend technology –the part we consume, has evolved at light speed. The pace of this came not from it being a new technology, but because engineers had been working with GPS for a decade, albeit a crippled one. When the Clinton decision unlocked the full potential of GPS for consumer applications, we had an immediate avalanche of uses.

We quickly had GPS navigation devices that had the single purpose of navigating you from A to B. These were all the rage for a couple of years, then they were supplanted almost completely by smartphones –whose integrated GPS receivers gave you the same navigation performance with all the other things that a smartphone can provide. 

Beyond the straightforward navigation use, GPS is used to help harvest crops, protect valuable equipment, assist in mining, land surveying –the list could go on and on. The tethering of GPS to our daily lives has happened in a very short amount of time. We have gone from zero practical, everyday uses to countless ones in roughly thirty years. We continue to see growth in GPS technology all the time. New hardware that is specifically designed to solve a single issue, to software applications that allow you to see all the important things in your business, at a glance. We are happy to be a part of this innovation and are excited to see where it goes next.   

Interested in leveraging GPS tracking for your business? Reach out to our team. We're happy to walk you through our easy-to-use software.

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