Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Commercial GPS turns 25 years old!

Twenty-five years ago, the first Magellan GPS unit were shipped to retailers for the average consumer to purchase.  The release of this military grade equipment quickly gained adoption as navigation devices in light aircraft, vehicles and adventure travel.  This single technology, coupled with mobile technology, has impacted overland travel more than any other device.

Mashable highlights a few memorable moments throughout Commercial GPS history:
While GPS proved invaluable to the coalition forces, it could prove equally valuable for the enemy. So the government introduced "selective availability" (SA) — errors added to reduce accuracy in civilian GPS receivers.
President Clinton turned off SA on May 1, 2000, which improved consumer device accuracy to 15 meters, coincidentally around the same time the first handheld units with included city street maps became available, such as the first full-color GPS handheld, the Magellan Meridian Color Handheld GPS Navigator, in 2002.
After the success of the [Magellan] NAV 1000 and the publicity generated by the Gulf War, the GPS floodgates opened. A variety of GPS devices from other companies such as Garmin (1989), TomTom (1991) and Mio (2002), hit the market using maps and navigation software from a variety of suppliers such as Navteq (1987), Navigon (1991), SiRF (1995) and TeleNav (1999).

One of the first overland websites to actively share GPS coordinates was 'Hujumbo Africa'. In 1999 Andy le May made an effort to capture various waypoints and share them publicly.  Additional overland websites followed the idea quickly posting links to camp sites, embassies and bush camps.
Hujumbo Africa - GPS Waypoints
My first experience of using a GPS was also in 1999.  My Garmin II required direct line of sight to gain a fix on the satellites often taking minutes to lock on to the satellites.  I remember running an external antenna through the vents of my Land Rover Series II and into the spare wheel on the bonnet.  The magnet-backed antenna would boost the GPS signal enough,  even when driving through thick bush.
To Africa & Beyond
Common errors in the early day for GPS sharing included using the incorrect Datum however, over time, the WGS84 standard gained traction and is now the default datum.  Sharing coordinates was tedious as majority of guide books started printing coordinates (often in different formats) but not providing a digital download.  In 2005, I required numerous pieces of software to accurately use my Garmin III+ but often had to manually enter degrees, minutes and seconds.  I know prefer and actively use decimal degrees (dd.ddddd).

BigSky Adventures - 2005 - GPS Information
In 2014, most of my gadgets have an inbuilt GPS - my mobile phone, my satnav in my 4x4, my running watch and cycling computer, however, my ability to navigate is fading as I rely on technology to tell me where I am, and where I need to go.  In February 2012, I wrote a blog post and added the following comment:
...for my sanity, I need to leave SatNav behind and begin to explore those minor roads, bravely going were hardly any SatNav's dare... I need to get lost again, and to retrace my vehicle tracks.  I need to ponder maps & routes.  Time to leave SatNav at home... GPS Graveyard
I still do the endless hours of planning (simply because I enjoy it) and will download track files from various websites, however, I am learning to explore and simply not follow the GPS.  I certainly admire the more adventurous who can follow an unknown route with little hesitation!

Additional Reading

Informally, specifying a geographic location usually means giving the location's latitude and longitude. The numerical values for latitude and longitude can occur in a number of different formats:[2]degrees minutes seconds: 40° 26′ 46″ N 79° 58′ 56″ W
degrees decimal minutes: 40° 26.767′ N 79° 58.933′ W
decimal degrees: 40.446° N 79.982° W