PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — On July 17, 1995, the Air Force announced the Global Positioning System had achieved full operational capability. A total of 24 satellites were on orbit, providing global 24-hour coverage, and in the two decades since, GPS has been woven into nearly every aspect of human activity, from military operations to sports.
At the time full operational capability was announced, GPS had already proved its worth during Operation Desert Storm. It allowed ground forces to navigate the featureless desert terrain, even when the system had only 16 satellites providing about 19 continuous hours of coverage per day. Today, roughly two-thirds of all munitions being used to combat Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorists rely on some form of GPS guidance.
Nearly 40 years ago, the Air Force launched the first GPS satellite, dubbed Navstar. But even the most visionary of those people involved with the first launch probably couldn’t have guessed how much GPS would eventually impact the world.
“It is amazing how people continue to find new and innovative uses for the GPS signal,” said Micah Walter-Range, the Space Foundation director of research and analysis.
“GPS can be used on a personal level for summoning a taxi or ridesharing service to your precise location, or for letting your ‘smart home’ devices know when you are near your house so they can be ready and waiting for you,” he said. “Businesses also rely heavily on the precision timing of the GPS signal, which enables companies to capitalize on the reliability and accuracy of an atomic clock for a relatively low cost.”
Part of life
GPS technology is woven into nearly every area of modern life, from banking to farming, complex military operations, to how athletes train. According to the Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency, there are 4 billion GPS-enabled devices worldwide, a number that is expected to double in the next five years. A recent study by research firm Markets and Markets estimates the global GPS market will reach over $26 billion by 2016.
GPS precision timing allows a business to time-stamp transactions regardless of location. A company knows its time-stamp will be the same in New York as it is in Tokyo. This synchronization is critical for keeping global telecommunications and financial networks from grinding to a halt.
Recreational users are creating art or messages using GPS tracking, making the world their canvas.
“Recently, a man in Japan used GPS tracking to create a marriage proposal that spanned more than 4,300 miles,” Walter-Range said. “We expect individuals and businesses to keep coming up with new applications that the creators of GPS would never have imagined.”
Military tool, civilian utility
With the proliferation of GPS uses, it’s easy to forget it started as a military technology, one that is still integral to military operations.
“Using GPS on the battlefield goes beyond navigation and precision timing,” said Lt. Col. Todd Benson, the 2nd Space Operations Squadron commander, and the squadron that maintains the GPS constellation. “From troops on the ground, ships at sea and aircraft over targets, today nearly every military operation has some type of GPS tie-in and support.”
“The Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, is GPS-aided,” he said. “That’s the weapon of choice for precision guided munitions. Some people might know it as a smart bomb; GPS is what makes it smart.”
GPS is also making parachutes smart. The Joint Precision Airdrop System can steer itself to a drop zone a significant distance from its release point. JPADS can keep both the aircraft and the troops on the ground safer because neither has to move through dangerous areas to make the drop. JPADS can also deliver to multiple ground targets from the same airdrop.
GPS is also used heavily in air operations, from basic three-dimensional positioning to enabling aircraft to find each other for refueling operations, to performing precise maneuvers in three-dimensional airspace. It is indispensable to search and rescue crews, for both military and civilian operations.
Airmen are key
So, does it take hundreds or thousands of people to operate a system that many people rely on, both civilian and military?
“If you go to Schriever Air Force Base, (Colorado,) today and you walk into the 2nd Space Operations Squadron, in a little room you’ll find seven Airmen,” said Gen. John Hyten, the Air Force Space Command commander, in a recent speech.
“(Their) average age will be about 23 years old,” he said. “Those Airmen are providing everything that is GPS for the entire world — everything.”
“So if you’re on a bass boat in the middle of Alabama; if you’re on a golf course in the middle of Scotland; wherever you happen to be using GPS, those seven Airmen, average age 23, are providing those capabilities. That’s pretty amazing,” the general said.
AFSPC continues to enhance the GPS signal through technology upgrades. GPS III is scheduled to launch in 2017 and will be a more robust, reliable vehicle with a longer mission life, complete with multiple signals to support both military and civilian users.