Editorial: Why we love GPS

This Valentine's Day, 14 February, it will be 20 years since the Global Positioning System constellation of satellites was inaugurated and quickly became better known by its initials: GPS. 

Ever since games consoles overtook simulators in sophistication (when exactly was that?), it seems consumer electronics has led defence electronics, rather than the other way around. But in 1989, the military was still at the cutting edge. The US military's GPS wasn't only a defence technology that 'trickled down' to consumers; the system itself was taken up by civil users all over the world.

That military history has shaped the story of GPS and the world's relationship with it. For many years, the US government degraded the signal to reduce its accuracy in case it fell into the wrong hands. Even today other countries don't fully trust that it will always be there. China, India and Japan are still developing their own. Europe's own Galileo system was meant to provide an alternative to GPS this year but, as you can read in our feature on p70, won't now do so until at least 2013.

Commercial airlines haven't trusted GPS very much up to now, and you can read why they're coming round to it in our cover story about the anniversary and the future of GPS on p20.

Consumers, however, quickly came to take satnav for granted. Even just a few years ago people were amazed and astounded by a technology that could not only talk you from A to B but could also look for the quickest route, taking into account likely traffic conditions, traffic reports and so on.

And it is astounding: a constellation of satellites signalling to that little receiver in your car, plotting your position on the roadmaps of Europe. It's one of those technologies that's quite fun to explain to the kids how it works, because it really is a marvel of engineering - well, it is to me, anyway.

Yet GPS is remarkable for its potential as well as its technology. As Mark Williamson explores in this issue's cover story, it's used in volcano prediction, fishing, photography, mobile communications, power and even satellites themselves. On p36, Nick Smith talks to explorer Pen Hadow about how his team will use it to get vital data about the state of the Arctic ice. We have a whole feature in our control section (p42) about how companies are using GPS and RFID together to keep track of their assets.

GPS will move from these highly practical applications to an even wider world of fun and entertainment. Have you ever used those electronic museum guides, in which you stand in front of an exhibit, press a number on the handset, and over the headphones you hear a story or explanation about the room or the item you're looking at?

Now imagine that on a much larger scale: history lessons on the move for the kids to keep them occupied in the back seat. Imagine a phone that will play you stories from a city's past as you ride or walk through it - or that could be personalised to your interests: a famous movie scene pointed out, or the hotel that was once trashed by your favourite rock band.

Andrew Shanahan looks at the more unusual applications ranging from 'SatLav' to 'emotional maps' on p74. He should know, because he wrote www.230milesoflove.com [new window], a GPS comedy for the M6 motorway and the world's first satcom.

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