GPS (Global Positioning System) - definition

Glossary

Global Positioning System was developed by the United States' Department of Defense. It uses between 24 and 32 Medium Earth Orbit satellites that transmit precise microwave signals. This enables GPS receivers to determine their current location, time and velocity. The GPS satellites are maintained by the United States Air Force.

Additional countries with there own satellite positioning systems are:

  • • Russia - GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System)
  • • European Union - Galileo (Global Navigation Satellite System)
  • • China - BeiDou Navigation Satellite System
  • • Japan - QZSS (Quasi-Zenith Satellite System)

GPS is often used by civilians as a navigation system. On the ground, any GPS receiver contains a computer that "triangulates" its own position by getting bearings from at least three satellites. The result is provided in the form of a geographic position - longitude and latitude - to, for most receivers, within an accuracy of 10 to 100 meters. Software applications can then use those coordinates to provide driving or walking instructions.

Getting a lock on by the GPS receivers on the ground usually takes some time especially where the receiver is in a moving vehicle or in dense urban areas. The initial time needed for a GPS lock is usually dependent on how the GPS receiver starts. There are three types of start - hot, warm and cold.

The hot start is when the GPS device remembers its last calculated position and the satellites in view, the almanac used (information about all the satellites in the constellation), the UTC Time and makes an attempt to lock onto the same satellites and calculate a new position based upon the previous information. This is the quickest GPS lock but it only works if you are generally in the same location as you were when the GPS was last turned off.

The warm start is when the GPS device remembers its last calculated position, almanac used, and UTC Time, but not which satellites were in view. It then performs a reset and attempts to obtain the satellite signals and calculates a new position.

The receiver has a general idea of which satellites to look for because it knows its last position and the almanac data helps identify which satellites are visible in the sky. This takes longer than a hot start but not as long as a cold start.

And finally – the cold start is when the GPS device dumps all the information, attempts to locate satellites and then calculates a GPS lock. This takes the longest because there is no known information.

The GPS receiver has to attempt to lock onto a satellite signal from any available satellites, basically like polling, which takes a lot longer than knowing which satellites to look for. This GPS lock takes the longest.

In an attempt to improve lock times, cellphone manufacturers and operators have introduced the Assisted GPS technology, which downloads the current ephemeris for a few days ahead via the wireless networks and helps triangulate the general user’s position with the cell towers thus allowing the GPS receiver to get a faster lock at the expense of several (kilo)bytes.