GPS: the ultimate COTS technology

Feb. 1, 1997
The military, which first developed the technology, now takes advantage of a huge supplier base and economies of scale that yield inexpensive, high-quality devices

The military, which first developed the technology, now takes advantage of a huge supplier base and economies of scale that yield inexpensive, high-quality devices

By John Rhea

The commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) tail is wagging the military dog in burgeoning civil applications of the Global Positioning System (GPS). That should be good news for officials in the Pentagon as GPS makes the transition from exotic to mainstream technology. Wider global acceptance of GPS technology means falling prices and a broadening applications base, both of which Pentagon officials have been anticipating for years.

GPS is one of the most striking examples of military-developed technology embraced by commercial systems designers and ultimately fed back into military systems at the low costs and high quality that huge economies of scale provide. In the early days of GPS, only the military was buying receivers, and at premium prices. Today, GPS is on its way to becoming as culturally pervasive as the personal computer, and military buyers now obtain many GPS receivers at consumer electronics prices.

In addition, he base of experienced GPS users inside and outside of the military is growing quickly, so users are readily willing to accept new applications of this technology.

"New applications are taking the industry by storm," says Lloyd Stout, GPS/ navigation program manager at Vista Controls Corp. in Santa Clarita, Calif. "People didn`t know how much they needed to know where things are."

GPS is already pervasive not only in the military services, but also in society at large. "GPS will touch all our lives all day - how we work, how we play, how we learn - like the PC," adds Chuck Boesenberg, president of Ashtech Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Recent market research studies support this contention. The Washington-based trade association U.S. GPS Industry Council (USGIC) projects massive growth across all markets, with annual shipments exceeding $8 billion by 2000. Yet the real drivers are in just two sectors: car navigation (including intelligent land-based transportation systems generally) and new mobile consumer products that combine GPS and cellular telephones.

The military, which pioneered GPS over the past two decades, has become a minor player - in fact, the smallest market sector as of last year - and its role is expected to continue to dwindle. But, more than any other military electronics product, GPS prices are plummeting to where Defense Department officials will be able to outfit all operating units of all the services with embedded GPS devices.

The heart of GPS

The chipset, the heart of any GPS system, is the prime example of this trend. The going price today is $50, and Boesenberg looks for that to drop to $20 by the turn of the century. That allows GPS technology to be designed into existing communications and navigation systems and thus avoid the cost penalty of stand-alone GPS devices in which the other parts of the system - case, keyboard, display, batteries, etc. - are more resistant to price erosion.

For example, executives of Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., announced last fall that they would tailor versions of their Pentium processor as a universal in-vehicle platform to accommodate all the automotive applications of GPS, cellular telephony, and radio data broadcast. Company officials plan a conference for computing and communications developers later this year to tackle a system architecture that would enable developers to plug their units into the platform.

Also last year, Leaders of the Motorola Automotive and Industrial Electronics Group in Northbrook, Ill., introduced an application-specific integrated circuit version of their Oncore GPS receiver aimed at the automotive and systems integrator markets.

Company leaders had earlier teamed with Ford Motor Co. on the Remote Emergency Satellite Cellular Unit (RESCU) combining cellular phone and GPS technologies offered as an option on the 1996 and 1997 model Lincoln Continental cars. RESCU enables motorists to call for roadside assistance or emergency police or medical personnel via an emergency response center in Texas. The request includes a vehicle identification and its location.

PLGR now on cards

Rockwell International`s Avionics & Communications Division in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, meanwhile, is getting into the embedded GPS business with a two-card kit that can be integrated into existing systems.

The kit is a derivative of Rockwell`s Precision GPS Receiver (PLGR, pronounced "plugger") and is fully compatible with it, Rockwell officials say.

Known as the Miniature PLGR Engine, it transmits position, velocity, and timing information via RS-232 and CMOS serial interfaces with a standard 5v DC power requirement. The cards contain interfaces with standard keyboards and displays plus an active RF antenna port.

Rockwell delivered its 100,000th handheld GPS receiver to the military last November, and delivered its 50,000 PLGR the previous year.

The USGIC figures, although they haven`t been updated since 1995, clearly show the COTS domination of the market. Of the estimated 537,000 users in that year, only 52,000 were military. This was dwarfed by civil maritime users with 275,000 users (175,000 of them handheld) and 95,000 civil aviation users (80,000 handheld). Two other categories, civil land applications and mobile computing, accounted for another 115,000 users.

The same picture emerges when the GPS market is measured in dollars. Consumer applications such as car navigation and integration of GPS into cellular phones and portable units for outdoor recreation will account for more than 60 percent of the market by the year 2000, reports Mike Swiek, executive director of USGIC. He expects the market for GPS car navigation products alone to grow by a factor of 30 from its 1993 level. Cellular and portable products will grow 50 times over the same period.

Growth over the same period will taper off in the more mature markets, such as survey, mapping, and aviation applications. For example, 10 years ago, when GPS devices cost around $5,000 each, the producers targeted the boating industry on the assumption that anybody who could afford a boat would be willing to pay that much to have the latest technology. Now the market is the people who can afford cellular phones and laptop computers - and think they need the newest technology too.

Two trends are emerging in the GPS market, Swiek says. The first is the continuous 30 percent a year decline in the cost of the hardware content. The second is the increased contribution of embedded software in end-user applications.

In commercial markets in particular, he says, the increased software content is the fundamental driver for productivity increases and therefore acts to stabilize unit prices. In the consumer markets, the software is less of a cost factor, and there the traditional erosion of hardware prices is reducing the price at retail.

Stout at Vista Controls cites recent trends to support his view that prices are "crashing": from $300 for handheld marine units two years ago to a discount store price of $139 today and from more than $1,000 to around $500 for handheld civil aviation applications.

Since his company specializes in VME products, Stout sees the need for an open-system architecture to accomplish two things: to be able to incorporate navigation functions inexpensively into systems that have never had them before, and to upgrade or modify existing systems, all at minimal cost. And this, he maintains, can be done best with VME cards.

For the top-of-the-line military market, meanwhile, Stout envisions new applications calling for accuracies not to within meters but to within centimeters. Systems designers achieve this kind of accuracy with differential GPS (DGPS), which combines satellite signals with ground beacons. An example is attitude determination for aircraft and spacecraft in which GPS signals would complement gyroscopes to achieve redundancy.

Using the carrier phase tracking approach, in which two antennas mounted on the vehicle receive a signal transmitted at 1.4 GHz, users could determine attitude precisely by counting the number of wavelengths the receiver gets from the transmitter. The result would be accurate determination of position in the three axes of pitch, roll, and yaw, rather than the conventional single horizontal location.

DGPS expansion proposed

DGPS capability is also being expanded elsewhere. The Clinton Administration, which previously announced its intention to discontinue selective availability of GPS signals sometime after the year 2000, now expects to publish a proposed expansion of the U.S. Coast Guard`s DGPS correction beacon network early this year in the Federal Register.

One goal is to improve the accuracy of GPS-based mayday systems for truckers, according to Bill Jones, technical director of the Intelligent Transportation System Joint Program Office at the Department of Transportation. Today`s GPS-based trucker mayday systems are accurate to 330 feet, but DGPS would reduce that to 26 feet. Of the about 250,000 U.S. vehicles using GPS, 100,000 are trucks.

In addition, an expanded Coast Guard marine beacon system, operating at 283.5 to 325 KHz, could "be operational within a couple of years," Jones says. This would provide redundant coverage in which every user would be within range of two differential transmitters as part of a common navigation grid. The current Coast Guard system is limited to coastal areas and major inland waterways, but the proposed expansion would essentially blanket the nation with coverage.

However, the Washington-based trade association ITS America notes that more than 70 federal agencies, led by the Departments of Defense, Commerce, and Transportation, have varying roles in GPS usage and that any eventual policy will have to be hammered out among them.

GPS control upgrades

Improvements in the GPS satellite constellation are at hand as well. Engineers at the System Sciences Division of Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) in Calverton, Md., are upgrading the GPS control system to handle the new GPS Block IIF satellites due to be launched at the beginning of the 21st century.

The company teams with Rockwell International Corp. of Seal Beach, Calif., which will supply as many as 33 spacecraft over the next 16 years.

CSC will integrate new hardware and software at the control facilities at Falcon Air Force Base, Colo., near Colorado Springs. Four other stations comprise the GPS ground network: Kwajalein, Hawaii, Diego Garcia, and Ascension Island.

CSC is working under a contract from the U.S. Air Force Space & Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. Total value of the Rockwell/CSC GPS Block IIF contract is estimated at $1.3 billion if the Air Force exercises all its options.

Supporting CSC are AlliedSignal Technical Services Co. in Colorado Springs; OAO Corp. of Greenbelt, Md.; and Rockwell Space Operations Co. in Houston.


Technicians are also teaming GPS with related systems to improve safety and accuracy. Ashtech officials, who have been pioneering the combined use of the U.S. GPS and the Russian GLObal Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), expect to seek certification for a flightworthy configuration and begin shipping production systems by mid-year. Ashtech engineers currently produce what they call their GG24 GPS + GLONASS boards for embedding in other systems.

Ashtech officials tested a prototype in November in what they claim was the first transoceanic flight using combined GPS and GLONASS technology. Conducting the demonstration was Universal Avionics Systems Corp. of Tucson, Ariz., which used a corporate jet for a 7 hour, 10 minute flight from Shannon, Ireland, to Teterboro, N.J. Pilots achieved accuracy to within 16 meters 95 percent of the time, according to Ashtech officials.

The prototype hardware consisted of Ashtech`s 24-channel GPS receiver board packaged in a 1MCU sensor that fed into Universal Avionics` UNS-1D flight management system. Average altitude was 41,000 feet, and the receiver computed positions using 17 satellites - eight GLONASS and nine GPS. The aircraft then flew on to Orlando, Fla., site of the 1996 National Business Aircraft Association conference.

For the consumer market, meanwhile, Magellan Systems Corp. of San Dimas, Calif., introduced a handheld GPS receiver last November that combined with a transmitter to send e-mail. The 2-pound device receives positional information from DOD`s GPS satellites and transmits and receives e-mail over a standard narrowband VHF frequency via the Orbcomm low-earth-orbit communications satellites from Magellan parent company Orbital Sciences Corp. of Fairfax, Va.

Known as the Model GSC 100, the unit costs $999. Magellan marketers are aiming it at applications such as resource exploration in which positional data are needed from areas beyond the reach of landline, cellular, and other terrestrial communications.

Another burgeoning non-military market for GPS, although it is not identified separately in the USGIC projections, is agriculture. The entrants include Ashtech with its Ag Navigator system; Trimble Navigation Ltd. of Sunnyvale, Calif., with its FieldGuide; and Rockwell International Agricultural Systems of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with Vision System.

The method of operation is essentially the same for each. A GPS receiver integrates with an in-vehicle processor and the required sensors mounted in tractors and other farm implements. These enable farmers to map their fields, take soil surveys, and map yields and soil moisture. They can also use the GPS-derived data to optimize applications of fertilizers and pesticides and planting of seeds.

This is one of the non-military applications in which DGPS accuracy is essential, and it is priced accordingly. This is likely to limit it to corporate farms and other large agricultural operations initially until declining costs open up new markets among smaller farmers.

GPS adds to digital camera

To the growing number of GPS applications, add one more: photography.

Eastman Kodak Co. of Rochester, N.Y., introduced a digital camera last year, its model 420 GPS, which is capable of simultaneously capturing a color image and its longitude and latitude coordinates. The camera interfaces with standard GPS receivers to eliminate the need to merge GPS data manually with photography.

Initial applications include environmental, forestry, and agricultural users who need precise location data quickly to respond to situations requiring imagery, but Kodak executives are also looking at markets in mapping, surveillance, law enforcement, and military intelligence.

The new GPS-capable model is available for $13,500 through the company`s Commercial & Government Systems unit, but Kodak officials say it can also retrofit existing DCS 420 digital cameras with the GPS interface.

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Magellan Systems Corp. offers a handheld GPS receiver that combines with a transmitter to send e-mail. The 2-pound device receives positional information from DOD`s GPS satellites and transmits and receives e-mail over a standard narrowband VHF frequency via low-earth-orbit communications satellites.

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Ashtech Inc. is helping pioneer the simultaneous use of the U.S. GPS and Russian Glonass satellite navigation systems in a single receiver. Pictured above, geologists use an Ashtech system for precise positioning in mining operations.

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The Rockwell International Collins Avionics & Communications Division offers an embedded GPS solution with a two-card kit - a derivative of Rockwell`s Precision GPS Receiver - that can be integrated into existing systems.

GPS market projections - worldwide

1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000


Car navigation 100 180 310 600 1100 2000 2500 3000

Consumer cellular 45 100 180 324 580 1000 1500 2250

Tracking 30 75 112 170 250 375 560 850

OEM 60 110 140 180 220 275 340 425

Survey & mapping 100 145 201 280 364 455 546 630

Aviation 40 62 93 130 180 240 300 375

Marine 80 100 110 120 130 140 150 160

Military 30 60 70 80 90 100 110 130

Sales in $ Millions 510 867 1266 1974 3074 4855 6416 8470

Source: U.S. GPS Industry Council - 1995

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The Motorola Automotive and Industrial Electronics Group offers an ASIC version of the Oncore GPS receiver aimed at the automotive and systems integrator markets.

12-channel DGPS from Leica

The Leica Inc. Navigation and Positioning Division in Torrance, Calif., which introduced a six-channel differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) marine navigation system in late 1995, is filling out its product line with 12-channel and dual-channel versions.

The 12-channel version, the MX 412, can track all GPS satellites in view simultaneously and can accept error correction data transmitted from marine radio beacons to increase accuracy to 3.3 feet, as demonstrated in recent field trials. The dual-channel MX 52R has an accuracy of about 17 feet.

Leica is a subsidiary of the Leica Corp., headquartered in St. Gallen, Switzerland. - J.R.

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The Leica Inc. Navigation and Positioning Division offers a 12-channel differential GPS marine navigation system with accuracy of 3.3 feet.

GPS works with INS in F/A-18 tests

A Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver tightly coupled to an inertial navigation set (INS) mounted on a U.S. Navy F/A-18 successfully passed a series of tests under simulated jamming and combat maneuvers at the Naval Air Warfare Center, Aircraft Division at Patuxent River, Md.

Sponsoring the Nov. 26 to Dec. 17 tests was the Tactical Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research projects Agency (DARPA) and the Naval Air Systems Command`s Air Combat Electronics Program Office (PMA-209) with equipment from Litton Industries in Woodland Hills, Calif., and from the Rockwell International Collins Avionics & Communications Division in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

For the tests, DARPA officials provided a GPS Guidance Package (GGP) consisting of the INS, a 10-channel receiver to process GPS signals, and a navigation computer. The GGP was mounted in the nose of the aircraft, and a single GPS antenna was placed on top. The goal was to evaluate how the tight-coupling architecture could enable the INS to take over when GPS signals were jammed or when the GPS antenna was out of the line of sight of the satellites during tight turns (as steep as 7.5 g), barrel rolls, and other combat maneuvers.

The objectives were met, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Beth Kaspar, GGP program manger at DARPA, and the flight tests demonstrated that the INS could take over when needed and that the GPS signals could be reacquired within seconds after the aircraft resumed level flight operations. - J.R.

GPS on the Web

Now the Global Positioning System (GPS) community has its own web site on the Internet: Furnishing the new GPS home page is Technology Plus of Dallas, and is a forum for information exchange on GPS issues and technologies.

The new web site evolved out of the company`s earlier work for the U.S. Army, and T. Carl Clark, who is in charge of it for Technology Plus, expects it to be particularly helpful for the smaller companies that are unable to provide locations of their own.

Among the larger companies with their own GPS-oriented home pages are Ashtech Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif. (, Rockwell International, Collins Avionics & Communications Division, Cedar Rapids, Iowa (, Magellan Systems Corp., San Dimas, Calif. (, and Trimble Navigation, Ltd., Sunnyvale, Calif. (( - J.R.

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