By Peter O. Large, Vice President, Trimble
November 29, 2013, marks the 210th anniversary of the birth of Christian Doppler. His work laid down the fundamental concepts that enabled researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the United States to make observations on the signals of Sputnik I during the International Geophysical Year of 1957. From those observations more than 60 years ago, we can trace the development of GNSS as we know it today. The very genesis of GNSS drew on the combined science, technology, and innovation from Europe, the United States, and Russia. Today, GNSS is a truly global technology that has changed for the better the lives of an estimated one billion people.
2013 also saw a major milestone in the global history of GNSS with the announcement by the European Space Agency (ESA) that the Galileo system had generated its first position fix using operational space vehicles. Here at Trimble we have for some time been providing user equipment that is ready for the modernized, multiple-constellation environment emerging in the coming years. It is still exciting to see the plans of the GNSS operators gradually become a reality, whether it is the ongoing deployment of Galileo and BeiDou or the modernization of GPS and GLONASS. There is no doubt that GNSS users worldwide will benefit significantly from these new developments, and it is natural to expect that we will see continued user-driven adoption and integration of these systems in the year ahead, together with new applications and services that make full use of the expanding GNSS capabilities.
Global Addiction to Accuracy
We have come to expect — if not demand — that technologies continuously evolve to become faster, smaller, and more cost-effective, while also providing expanded functionality and benefits. For GNSS, this expectation includes increased accuracy and precision for a growing proportion of the total user base, together with a desire to determine location in more places or, ultimately, ubiquitously.
From a technological perspective, the trend to increased accuracy is moving beyond local or regional land- or satellite-based differential augmentation toward global networks and services. New technologies such as Trimble RTX use data from a global network of GNSS stations together with global connectivity and communications to facilitate precise point positioning without the need to connect to local or regional reference station networks. Such capabilities simplify the user’s experience with precise positioning, while at the same time vastly expanding the areas on Earth where such positioning can be quickly and conveniently carried out.
Over the past decades, high-precision GNSS positioning has been adopted by increasingly larger numbers of users in the context of end-to-end work-process solutions in industries from agriculture to construction, surveying and mapping, energy, mining, utilities, transportation, and government, to name but a few. With assets, workers, and work sites spread over large geographic areas, these industries and operations have transformed how their work is done through the use of systems that incorporate real-time location information. While we should expect adoption and advancement in these areas to continue due to the compelling economic, safety, and environmental benefits provided, we should also expect to see increasing adoption of high-precision GNSS positioning in new applications such as intelligent transportation and within some proportion of the consumer user base. Accuracy is, after all, addictive.
Availability, Too. Along with accuracy, availability of position is also proving to be addictive; once we come to depend on location-enabled systems in our professional and personal lives, our needs and expectations will naturally tend toward that of continuous availability at all times and regardless of location. Although new constellations with more satellites and new, stronger signals help in this regard, augmentation of GNSS plays a key role on the path to more robust ubiquity. From a Trimble perspective, many of our new product launches during the past year incorporated deep integration of multiple measurement technologies. New systems combine GNSS with inertial measurement units, gyros, tilt sensors, seismometers, optical measurement, imaging systems, lasers, and other sensors or technologies, all enabling location and movement determination (increasingly in three dimensions) of more objects in more places — including, in some cases, even inside buildings. Looking to the future,we can expect the appetite for ubiquitous positioning to continue unabated.
Multiple sensors are also used to collect non-geographic information. Increasingly, innovation is taking place at the intersection and aggregation of many different types of data, providing new insights and enabling more informed, more timely, and more insightful decisions across almost every facet of human activity. GNSS is rapidly expanding its role as an enabling technology in this regard. While we know that delivering consistently accurate positions is a decidedly nontrivial achievement, those positions are often just one component of increasingly large and complex endeavors. In fact, much of the innovation today lies in applications that enable new, more efficient approaches to work and enterprise management, and in the creation of new and powerful analytics from aggregated data.
Global Utility, Global Business
2013 marks another important anniversary: GPS officially reached Initial Operating Capability twenty years ago on December 8, 1993. In his 2011 State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama cited GPS, along with the Internet, as key examples of how government-funded fundamental research can stimulate innovation and create whole new industries. The combination of those two technologies has transformed our lives in ways even the early visionaries may not have imagined. The U.S. government has contributed to the global success of GPS in ways beyond technological innovation. Following the 1983 Korean Airlines 007 disaster (caused in part by inaccurate navigation), President Reagan declared that GPS should be free and available to all, providing a stable policy foundation upon which successive U.S. administrations have continued to build, increasingly recognizing the importance of civilian GPS applications.
Importantly, the United States strengthened this open-access policy framework by publishing the Interface Control Document for GPS, which enabled entrepreneurs and innovators anywhere in the world to bring to life their ideas about how this new technology in space could be used on Earth. For the most part, other governments have followed U.S. leadership in announcing predictable policy access to worldwide satellite positioning and timing availability, allowing innovation to take place wherever it may. In the process it spawned a truly global industry.
Technology alone has not achieved the global impact of GNSS. Rather, it is the combination of technology, a transparent, stable policy environment conducive to global innovation and adoption, and the economics of a global market that together have led to so many people today enjoying the benefits that GNSS provides. Such alignment is equally important for the future: just as GNSS from the beginning built upon knowledge and achievement from around the world, its full international potential will be best realized through global, user-driven innovation, vibrant international entrepreneurship, and robust open markets. Given that we are still far from reaching that full potential, there is good reason for us all to have great expectations of GNSS operators, the industry, and the user community in 2014 and beyond.
Peter O. Large joined Trimble in 1996 and has served as a vice president and a member of the executive committee since 2010. He holds a BSc (Hons) in surveying and mapping science from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, and an M.S. in management from Stanford University.