Blue dots at the centre of our universe

If you tune into BBC World Service, you may have heard the series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy.Tim Harford tells the fascinating stories of 50 inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world. The series asked for nominations on the 51st thing and Miranda Sharp, our Head of Smart Cities Practice, suggested GNSS (the Global Navigation Satellite System which encompasses GPS, the US’ Global Positioning System, amongst others). It made it to the shortlist and is open for votes until 6 October. Miranda explains why she nominated GNSS – and why you should vote for it!

I gobbled up Tim Harford’s latest series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. Tales of female emancipation wrapped up in TV dinners, tackling corruption through the technology of M-Pesa and enabling rapid transfer of ideas in an urban economy with the advent of the elevator. Listen to them all, buy the book, they are brilliant stories.

Tim asked his loyal listeners for ideas for a 51st thing and I suggested GNSS. Let me tell you why.

GNSS is an almost invisible but omnipresent technology with a huge economic impact. Global infrastructure relies upon its accurate positioning, navigation and timing functionality.

Just a few of the things GNSS enables: secure banking, mobile phone operation, air traffic control, on time trains, accurate mapping, next day delivery, fitness tracking, safe seas, road tolling, precision agriculture, cargo movements, accurate weather forecasts, the traffic management of satellites, as well as helping us navigate to our local pizza shop.

How did this come about?

In 1957, when the Russians launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth, accurate personal and asset positioning was tricky. The watching Americans observed that they could track the satellite due to frequency changes in Sputnik’s radio signal (caused by the Doppler effect).

In the 1960s, this discovery led the US and Soviet militaries to develop independent systems to locate their nuclear submarine fleets.

In the 1970s, two more robust systems were born to provide always-available navigation. The results were the satellite-based systems, GPS from the USA and GLONASS from the (former) USSR.

The Cold War provided further impetus for the take up of global navigation when civilian access to GPS was granted in the 1980s. This was rushed along by the Reagan administration after the Soviets mistakenly shot down a Korean commercial passenger jet, which they thought was a spy plane, killing all 269 passengers. It was hoped that by freeing up the use of GPS to accurately track flight and share that information, such tragedies would be avoided in the future.

More than in any previous war, the first war in Iraq was a conflict won by the use of precision guided troops, vehicles and munitions, which was only made possible by GNSS.

Since then, Europe launched its Galileo satellite navigation system, which is scheduled to be fully global and operational by 2020, which is the same for China’s BeiDou system.

This rapid development and take up means that at any given point, though naked to the eye, there may be 10 to 20 GNSS satellites above our head in the sky orbiting Earth.

Today, anyone with a mobile phone can determine their location anywhere on Earth to within a few metres. Technology developments mean that what was possible for a few hundred thousand pounds in the 1980s is now possible for a few pounds.

For OS, with our OS Net system, we can use GNSS to do processing and modelling that improves accuracy to 1-2cm and precision up to millimetre level – this is enough to detect the deformation on bridges and the movement of the Earth’s plates.

From its functional military origins, the plethora of applications supported by GNSS now runs into the hundreds, and its users and value into the billions.

The story of GNSS is one of collaborative research and development on a global scale, breaking out of the military bunker in which it was conceived. It started with Sputnik, took in a tragic civilian air disaster, the democratisation of science and the inability to keep a public good secret.

But it is also insidious? Thanks to GNSS we can position ourselves so that we’re always at the centre of our universe. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University suggest that the way we are constructing our own mental maps is changing not just the way we think about the world around us but also the structure of our brains. Is GNSS a technology which has made us dependent on itself?

Who can tell? I can’t wait for Tim to have a crack. (And in the meantime please vote for GPS: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/4Y4Gn8gbQvp4X87wGLV3n4N/vote-for-the-51st-thing)

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0 Response

  1. I don’t know about my brain structure but I certainly support your view that the world shrinks when using GPS. Auto zoom shows you the road you’re on and the next junction but not where you’re going.

    Centrimetric measurement has its place and can be of great value but it’s of no use when driving hundreds of miles.

    Direction/heading up also distorts any level of world view.

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