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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. 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. 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.
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 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)
Did your pet escape from the backyard fence? GPS can help you find where they went.
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.
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.
4. Having Fun
Rather have fun? You and a few friends can get together to play location-based games. Pokémon Go and other augmented reality games rely on GPS to determine where you are. Prefer regular reality? You may want to try out geocaching, where people hide treasure for others to find using GPS.
5. Expanding Your Hobbies
Save the exact location of the photographs you take. Track the route you take when jogging or riding your bike. 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