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How GPS Works: The Inner Workings of GPS in Australia.

by Andrew Fanner,
Dec 6, 2023
warehouse staff scanning boxes for delivery dispatch
warehouse staff scanning boxes for delivery dispatch

Table of Contents:

Up above the Downunder, GPS is powering every aspect of our lives.

In the vast and diverse terrain of Australia, where logistics operations stretch across vast distances, the role of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology is indispensable. GPS has become the backbone of logistics, providing precise location data, route optimisation, and real-time tracking capabilities. 

In this technical blog post, we are going to take a look at GPS technology and its intricate workings within (and far above) the Australian logistics landscape. But first of all, here are some quick facts about GPS.

  • GPS was developed by the U.S. military but is free for anyone in the world to use.
  • The First Gulf War (1990) marked the first combat use of GPS by the military.
  • Early military “handheld” GPS receivers weighed a hefty 17 kilos.
  • GPS-enabled cell phones made their debut in 2004, bringing GPS capabilities to the consumer market.
  • GPS offers two levels of service: the Standard Positioning Service, available worldwide for free, and the Precise Positioning Service, exclusively for U.S. armed forces, federal agencies, and select allies.
  • Several countries are developing their own global navigation satellite systems, such as Russia’s GLONASS and China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System.

Understanding GPS Technology

Believe it or not, there was a time before GPS. In those [not so] far-off days, people relied on local knowledge, experience, dead reckoning and luck to find their way around. We had paper maps; we had street smarts; we could stop and ask someone the way. 

But these days, like pretty much everything, we rely on technology to navigate our way through the labyrinth of day-to-day existence. And here at TransVirtual, we’re not saying that’s a bad thing. After all, our logistics software systems rely on GPS technology to make jobs such as delivering packages much more efficient. However, reliance on digital devices has, to some degree, taken away our innate navigation skills and replaced them with an almost total reliance on digital sorcery based on invisible objects high in the sky.

But whether or not you think that GPS is a good thing, there’s no doubt it’s a pretty impressive technical leap. Here’s how it works.    

The Basics of GPS

GPS is a satellite-based navigation system developed by the United States Department of Defense. It consists of a constellation of 24 satellites orbiting the Earth, each equipped with atomic clocks. These satellites continuously transmit signals that are received by GPS devices on the ground.

The system’s initial development enabled a GPS receiver to establish connections with three or more satellites for trilateration of their position. However, its usage remained restricted to military applications until the 1980s. It wasn’t until a Korean airliner veered off course due to navigational errors and was subsequently shot down by Soviet fighters that the technology was opened up to the world. President Ronald Reagan played a pivotal role in making this global accessibility a reality, recognising the importance of averting such tragic incidents through broader civilian use of GPS.

The signals sent out by GPS satellites are akin to cosmic breadcrumbs, scattered at precise intervals to guide our every move. As they cascade down from the heavens, they are captured by the GPS devices on the ground, whether nestled in our smartphones, cars, or specialised navigation equipment. Through an intricate dance of mathematics and algorithms, these devices interpret the signals, calculating our precise position, elevation, and velocity with remarkable accuracy. 

It is this synchronised celestial ballet, orchestrated by the interaction between the satellites and our GPS devices, that has enabled the web of modern navigation systems that guide us through unfamiliar terrain, opening up new horizons in fields of transportation, logistics, exploration…or finding a coffee.

Triangulation Vs Trilateration

The core principles of GPS are triangulation and trilateration. GPS devices receive signals from multiple satellites simultaneously. By calculating the time it takes for each signal to reach the device, the GPS receiver can determine its precise location through both triangulation and trilateration.

  • Triangulation. This is a method of determining a point’s location by measuring angles from known reference points, creating a network of triangles, and calculating distances and positions based on these angles.
  • Trilateration. This method involves measuring distances from a single point to known reference points and using the intersecting circles (or spheres in 3D) centred on these reference points to pinpoint the exact location of the target point.

A constellation of satellites

GPS satellites orbit the Earth at altitudes of approximately 20,000 kilometres. They are strategically positioned to ensure that at least four satellites are visible from any point on the planet, allowing for accurate positioning and navigation.

GPS in the Australian Logistics Landscape

Australia’s vast geographical expanse poses unique logistics challenges. Long supply chains, remote regions, and unpredictable weather conditions necessitate precise navigation and efficient routing. GPS technology plays a pivotal role in overcoming these challenges.

Route Optimisation

Logistics companies in Australia rely on GPS-based route optimisation software to plan the most efficient paths for deliveries. GPS devices factor in real-time traffic data, road conditions, and even weather forecasts to choose the optimal routes.

Real-Time Tracking

Real-time tracking is essential for logistics operations. GPS technology provides continuous location updates, enabling logistics teams and customers to monitor the progress of shipments, even in remote or rural areas.

Asset Management

GPS extends beyond tracking shipments. It is also an invaluable tool for asset management. In the logistics industry, this includes tracking the locations of trucks, containers, and other valuable assets, and optimising their utilisation to ensure they are being used most cost-effectively.

Advanced GPS Features

In addition to the day-to-day operations of standard GPS systems, there are also several more advanced systems used in Australia for specialised jobs.

Differential GPS (DGPS)

DGPS is a technology that enhances GPS accuracy by correcting signal errors caused by atmospheric conditions and signal reflections. It’s particularly valuable in challenging environments, such as the urban canyons of Sydney and Melbourne, or densely wooded areas such as the rainforests of Far North Queensland or the Snowy Mountains of NSW and Victoria.

Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) GPS

RTK GPS is a high-precision positioning technique that achieves centimetre-level accuracy. It’s employed in specialised logistics applications where pinpoint accuracy is critical, such as construction site logistics.

GPS Augmentation Systems

Augmentation systems like the Australian Ground-Based Augmentation System (GBAS) enhance GPS accuracy in specific regions. GBAS is used in aviation and can benefit logistics operations near airports.

“Don’t Blame the Sleeping Satellite”*

In the Australian logistics landscape, where vast distances, remote areas, and complex supply chains are the norm, GPS technology is a true game-changer. It provides the critical location data needed for route optimisation, real-time tracking, and asset management. 

Whether you are navigating through bustling cities, remote outback regions, or along the almost endless coastline of our continent, the invisible satellites of the GPS network will ensure that your logistics operations remain efficient, on track, and responsive to the ever-changing demands of the industry. As technology continues to advance, GPS will remain a foundational pillar of success in logistics, guiding businesses towards reliability and precision in their operations across the Australian landscape.

*Tamsin Archer’s chart-topping song from 1992