Technology Explained

How Does GPS Tracking Work and What Can You Track With It?

Bertel King 08-06-2017

GPS. Those three letters may bring your mind to those screens you used to put on your dashboard. Now they’re a feature in your smartphone. But GPS tracking can be used for much more than steering you toward a destination. You may be heavily relying on the technology without realizing it.


Or you could be missing out on a world of possibilities. We don’t want that, so let’s take a look at what GPS tracking is all about.

What Is GPS?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It’s a space-based navigation system owned by the United States government and operated by the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. Department of Defense first created the system in the 1970s using 24 satellites, but it didn’t become fully operational until the 1990s.

Despite being a project operated by the American military, the Global Positioning System is free for anyone to use. All you need is a GPS receiver, a direct line of sight to at least four satellites, and to be somewhere on (or near) the planet Earth.

While GPS is open to everyone, the U.S. can deny access to certain people or organizations. As a result, Russia developed a different system. GLONASS is currently the only alternative option that spans the entire globe and offers comparable precision GLONASS - The GPS Alternative You Never Knew Existed Did you know there's more to location services than GPS? There's another satellite navigation system which you might not have heard of, but you're probably already using. It's called GLONASS. Read More . China, the European Union, and India are each working on their own solutions.

How GPS Works

The system relies on satellites and does not transmit data of any kind. That means no i nternet connection is required, which is why GPS navigation is still reliable in rural areas.


Each satellite broadcasts a signal that includes a pseudo-random code and the time of transmission. A receiver determines the location of at least four satellites and its distance from each of those satellites. With this information, the receiver can display where it is.

Receivers translate their location into a set of coordinates. These numbers show the device’s position on the earth using latitude and longitude. In the video below, you see the numbers 43º05’42” N and 89º30’41.1″ W. The first number marks the number in degrees. Since this covers a wide swath of the globe, the number is further divided into 60 minutes. To be more precise, this number is divided into 60 seconds. Adding decimal points to seconds increases the precision further.

Alternatively, you may see coordinates written using decimals only. That would change the numbers above to 43.095194 N and 89.511417 W.

Since any variation in time can throw off the results, each satellite uses an atomic clock. This keeps the GPS system and all receivers in sync.


Uses for GPS

You’ve already heard of in-car GPS navigation What's the Best Maps and Navigation App for Android? Using the rights maps and navigation app can mean the difference between making it to your appointment on time or being late -- so we examine the best of them for you! Read More . Whether you have a dedicated GPS unit, have one built into your dashboard, or use an app on your phone, you’re relying on the same technology.

But let’s take a step back. You don’t have to rely on GPS only when behind the wheel of a car. There are plenty of other use cases you make not be aware of.

1. Hiking

Being able to pinpoint your location can be just as important, if not moreso, when going on a hike. Not having to rely on an internet or cellular connection can be your saving grace if you venture somewhere outside the range of both.

Portable GPS units or specific smartphone apps Find Yourself With The Best iPhone GPS Apps Most of us prefer Google Maps on our iPhones, but you might be surprised to find that there are some other truly worthy contenders in the GPS space. Read More will show you where you are on a map, though it may still be up to you to know what to do with that information.


2. Tracking Other People (or Pets)

GPS is a great way to keep up with family members. They can help you find a lost child Track Your Kids and Stop Worrying with These GPS Trackers There are plenty of GPS child trackers already on the market. Which are best? That depends on many factors including distance, compatibility, durability, and price. Read More  or show you when your spouse will get back with takeout Why Tracking Your Significant Other's Location Isn't Always Evil But is it really so wrong to track your partner's movements, assuming it's consensual? Read More .

Did your pet escape from the backyard fence? GPS can help you find where they went How to Track Your Pets Using iOS or Android For many, a pet is an integral part of the family. When they go missing, lives are disrupted. Pet trackers make finding man’s best friend easy and carefree. Read More .

3. Finding Lost Objects

If you leave something behind on a road trip, you can mark the last known position on a GPS app. Or if you misplace your phone, GPS will help you find it from a computer Find Yourself With The Best iPhone GPS Apps Most of us prefer Google Maps on our iPhones, but you might be surprised to find that there are some other truly worthy contenders in the GPS space. Read More .

You can use GPS technology to track a stolen vehicle. For this to work, you have to plan things out in advance and install a tracker in your vehicle before a thief makes off with it. Think of it as a preventative measure, like installing a tracking app on your phone 10 Best Security & Privacy Apps for Smartphones & Tablets Security threats to smartphones and tablets are endless. Beyond the internal security options of your device, you should be using a few apps to protect your smartphone - here are some we recommend. Read More .


4. Having Fun

Rather have fun? You and a few friends can get together to play location-based games 10 Fun Outdoor Games to Play Using GPS-Enabled Smartphones Using the GPS functionality that's built into all modern smartphones, you can now walk out the door and start exploring the world -- and make a fun game out of it. Read More . Pokémon Go and other augmented reality games rely on GPS to determine where you are 3 Ways to Safely Play Pokemon GO What makes Pokemon GO dangerous is that players become oblivious to their surroundings. Common sense is not enough, you also have to plan ahead. We show you three options to enjoy the game safely. Read More . Prefer regular reality? You may want to try out geocaching What Is Geocaching And How To Have Fun With It Read More , where people hide treasure for others to find using GPS.

5. Expanding Your Hobbies

Save the exact location of the photographs you take Geotagging Photos: What It Is & Why You Should Start Right Now Geotagging is simple and there are many reasons why you may want to start doing it. Here's everything you need to know, including how to add and remove your own geotags. Read More . Track the route you take when jogging or riding your bike The Best Health and Fitness Apps by Runtastic Put to the Test Runtastic, the makers of one of the best fitness apps for Android, also have a lot of other apps. We take a look at all of them to see if they're worth your time. Read More . With this information, you can track where you’ve been and motivate yourself to explore someplace new.

This can bring some much-needed variety into your morning jog, or encourage you to pull the bike out of the garage more often than you otherwise would. There’s something cool about looking at a map of the little corners of the world you’ve made your own.

You May Already Depend on GPS Without Realizing It

Even if you actively choose not to use GPS, you probably still are. Ever get cash from an ATM? Do you actively follow the stock market? Presumably you stop at traffic lights.

All of these technologies rely on GPS to synchronize time. Those satellites circling the globe offer a great way to make sure everything is synchronized when every fraction of a second counts.

What are your favorite uses of GPS? Do you use dedicated GPS devices or stick with your phone? Have you come up with something creative that you would like to share? Are you freaked out by any of this? Join us in the comments below!

Image Credits: Kite_rin/Shutterstock

Related topics: GPS, Maps, Satellite.

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  1. ReadandShare
    June 8, 2017 at 10:30 pm

    In addition to the current GPS (USA) and Glonass (Russia) satellite positioning systems - come 2020 or thereabouts, two more will systems will come fully on line: Beidou (China) and Galileo (Europe)! More satellites in the sky at any one time should make positioning both faster and more accurate.