The Global Positioning System is a fantastic technology. Whether you are navigating on land or sea … via car, bike, or foot … on the roads or on the trails … GPS can keep you from getting (or feeling) lost. Additionally, it can give you the ability to share your position/routes with others, or follow theirs.
The US started launching GPS satellites in 1978. So far there have been 72 launches, and there are currently 31 satellites in orbit. In order to use the system, all you need is a GPS device (standalone, or built into your smartphone or smartwatch) that is powered on and in range of at least three of those satellites. The current publicly available system can place you within 5 meters.
It is a great system, and it is getting even better.
The Russian positioning system, called GLONASS, have had satellites orbiting since the 80’s, but only in the past 10 years have they been accessible using commercially-available GPSes. Devices that use both systems produce position information faster and more accurately (within 2 meters) than those that only use GPS technology.
The US plans to launch more a more accurate system (30-centimeter accuracy) starting sometime this year, and many other countries are launching their own systems over the next couple of years.
So improvements are coming for speed and accuracy, but I’m hoping to see advances in software that make these features more user-friendly. Automotive GPSes are quite mature and easy to use, but there is room for improvement for handheld devices.
Sharing your position, or your route, can be daunting for some; but following someone else’s tracks can be even more challenging. Automotive GPSes auto-route you very nicely, but the same is not true (so far) for handheld GPSes on trails. We are patiently waiting for better software, and at the same time we are slowly building databases of trail maps. You can help the latter by supporting sites like HikeTheIsland.com, wikiloc.com, and OpenStreetMap.org (which is more than just streets).
As these technologies improve and get into the hands of Joe Public, we may never get lost again; at least not geographically.