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GPS Chronicle: The Beginning of the Commercial Era

GPS Chronicle: The Beginning of the Commercial Era
by Majeed Ahmad on 07-22-2015 at 4:00 am

Although primarily developed for military operations, this cutting-edge satellite technology was eventually allowed for civilian applications. The first interagency testing of GPS receivers was conducted in California in 1984. By July 1995, using Navstar constellation, GPS was fully operational across the country. Automotive navigation systems were among the early GPS products to become commercially available in the United States.

The former Soviet Union had developed its own GPS at the height of cold war—Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS)—as an answer to American Navstar. Both GPS and GLONASS were to be used by an increasing number of civilians, from aviators and sailors to car drivers. GLONASS signals were also used by a number of Western GPS receivers as a complement or back-up to GPS.

Navstar began serving civilian users in the 1990s

In the private sector, former NASA engineer Allen B. Salmasi founded Omninet in 1984 to track down truck fleets using military satellite systems. An Iranian émigré, Salmasi had spent the late 1970s and early 1980s working on satellite communications for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

After the U.S. government urged the agency to privatize part of the GPS technology, he used US$5 million of his family’s wealth to start Omninet, a satellite navigation system Salmasi marketed to companies eager to monitor the location of their trucks. After struggling for four years to expand, he merged his business with another small telecommunications startup to form a new venture that ultimately became Qualcomm.

Salmasi founded Omninet for fleet navigation

Garmin was another star of the commercial GPS pioneering era and was founded by Garry Burrell and Min Kao at a dinner in 1989. Both had worked for King Radio: a legendary manufacturer of aviation radios. In fact, Burrell had lured Kao, a native of Taiwan, to King Radio from defense contractor Magnavox, where Kao had been developing military navigation systems using the GPS. Now Kao took Burrell to Taipei to raise money for their new company. They were able to get hold of US$4 million, which also included their personal savings, though they didn’t have to rely on venture capital.

The duo eventually hired a dozen engineers and set up an office in Lenexa, Kansas, naming their new company as ProNav. The first product was GPS 100, a dashboard-mounted GPS receiver aimed at marine market that sold for about US$2,500. In 1991, a competitor named NavPro took the GPS pioneer to the court, and subsequently, its name was changed to Garmin, which was a combination of the two founders’ first names.

GPS 100: Garmin’s first dashboard GPS device

GPS was inherently designed by the U.S. Army as a military system and was still being used for that purpose. It had never been fully adapted for consumer uses. Although the U.S. government offered the infrastructure to the world, it didn’t allow equivalent level of service to business users. To protect military interests, Pentagon impaired signals released by the satellites in order to limit the accuracy of system for non-military use.

For national security reasons, the U.S. government had required that the signals be scrambled, making them accurate only to within about a hundred meters. Moreover, the operators provided no guarantee of service or liability cover, and if there was a political crisis, GPS could be switched off without any warning to its users. Another technical limitation of GPS was that transmission was sometimes unreliable.

Still, things still kept moving for the technology as GPS was incrementally advanced beyond the scope of a navigation tool that the U.S. military used. Then Pentagon vowed to stop impairing GPS signals within a year’s time; with that requirement no longer in place in May 2000, the devices became accurate within one meter, which in turn would help the technology take off in a variety of areas. With the end of “selective availability,” civilian users were able to pinpoint locations with at least ten times more accuracy.

The U.S. space agency also announced plans to maintain the satellite network at no cost for commercial users anywhere in the world. The location concept, once out of military playfields, began making new headways in customized location services. Applications were developed to make the effective use of technology in a number of niche areas where new pocket-sized devices promised enormous, untapped commercial potential.

Also read:

GPS Chronicle: The Early History

Content of this article is based on excerpts from the book Smartphone: Mobile Revolution at the Crossroads of Communications, Computing and Consumer Electronics.

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