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GPS 101 links to GPS fundamental information and concepts for educators.  Learning material is useful for students too. Those who want to learn advance GPS concepts and field techniques should look to GPS Services section.


How GPS Works Trimble Navigation

GPS Overview University of Colorado

GPS Primer The Aerospace Corporation

History of GPS  National Academy Science

Global Positioning System Richard Lewis

GPS Glossary


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Global Positioning System (GPS)

by Richard Lewis

RLA Geosystems


American nuclear submarines in the 1960ís were having a difficult time finding position, quickly and accurately. They knew target coordinates, ballistics, and missile trajectory but the essential element in the fire control solution was current submarine coordinates. Something had to be done. The solution was to create an orbiting satellite network that transmitted position information to a worldwide nuclear submarine fleet. In 1970, Congress authorized the U.S.Department of Defense to develop the Navstar GPS system for $13 billion. The GPS signal was degraded to deny enemy use.  Selective Availability (SA) or signal degradation was removed in May, 2000.  The current accuracy of an uncorrected GPS signal is about 25-30 feet.  Inaccuracy can be attributed to satellite and receiver timing errors, ionospheric interference, multipath, and system errors. Differential correction (DGPS) can reduce the uncorrected signal errors to submeter. The military or authorized civilian users can obtain five to fifteen meter accuracy or better from a decrypted GPS signal without differential correction.

It seems complicated to use 24 satellites orbiting at 12,600 miles, rising and setting each 12 hours, to find our geographic position. In fact, the solution is simple. Trilateration (the measurement of distance and location) is used to pinpoint our location. Imagine you are on a camping trip armed with compass and map. You want to find your location, so you take four bearings to map landmarks. The cross-bearing is your location. GPS works in a similar way.  For GPS trilateration, we need two essential information pieces about each satellite: (1) Orbit position, and (2) Distance from satellite to our position. An almanac transmitted to a GPS receiver during regular operations contains the orbit position. Distance is calculated by multiplying the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) by the lapsed time required for a GPS signal to arrive from a satellite. Accurate satellite and receiver clocks provide timing. Once we have orbit and distance information on four satellites, we have a trilaterated position on the face of the earth. Three satellite solutions are satisfactory on the sea or in the air but four satellites are essential on land. GPS accuracy varies by receiver quality and correction method (described later). Survey grade receivers can provide five millimeter accuracy. The normal range is 5mm to 2cm. Resource grade receivers (used in GIS applications) provide submeter accuracy with a range of 10cm to 5m. A linear relationship exists between accuracy and cost.  GPS receiver cost increases as accuracy improves.


GPS Data Acquisition Compared to other Methods

GIS data acquisition and conversion are costly. GIS data transfer is 60% to 70% of total GIS system costs. GIS data acquisition is an ongoing task. After initial data gathering for a GIS system, Information must be continuously added and updated. It is important to reduce data acquisition and conversion costs. It is here that GPS shines.  GPS can automate and speed GIS data processing at a lower cost compared with other methods. Several studies have shown GPS data gathering can reduce GIS data collection costs by 50% or more. For example, the City of Ontario compared a fire hydrant inventory by GPS and conventional methods. GPS cost $515 and 41 man-hours for a 942 fire hydrant inventory.  The same inventory by conventional methods would have cost $4,575 and have taken two to four months. In addition, GPS data offers both spatial and tabular information. Digitizing can be labor intensive and subject to positional error. Scanning offers speed but lost detail and editing are disadvantages. Remote sensing and photogrammetry, unless high-resolution imagery is possible, may not meet GIS spatial detail requirements. GPS positions are collected in a digital form in the field. Spatial and tabular data are collected simultaneously.


The GPS Way to GIS Data Collection and Conversion

GPS data collection begins with the creation of a data dictionary. In GPS software, the tabular information to be associated with spatial data is defined. The data dictionary creates the point, line and area features. Attributes and values associated with each feature are described. For example, a well point feature or road line feature is described by road name, well depth, and well type attributes. Attribute values can be defined by menu selection, numeric, or text entries. Well type values may be a menu selection: domestic, industrial, or agriculture. The roadís name will be a text entry. Upon completion, the data dictionary is transferred to a GPS data logger.  GPS data collection can be around the clock. The collection process begins by occupying the defined point, line, and area. Point features (tree, well, lamppost, manhole cover, blast holes or fire hydrant) are stationary GPS activities requiring several positions. A line and area are kinematic activities with spatial data collected on the move. As a result, point features have better spatial accuracy than line or area features. During data gathering, the data dictionary attributes and values are entered and logged to spatial features.  A road is a typical line feature. The data dictionary feature might include road name, road condition, and road surface (concrete, asphalt, dirt, gravel). Data collection begins on the road centerline. The GPS operator enters the road name and condition and proceeds to gather line (road) data. Some GPS systems can segment the road feature to mark changes in surface values (concrete, asphalt etc.). The data interval is normally five seconds. GPS receiver has been placed on SAR (search and rescue) dogs to track search patterns in rescue situations. The dogís tracking path (line feature) is evaluated to provide further search and rescue directions.  An area is similar to a line feature except it closes to form a polygon.  A lake, pond, tennis court or parking lot are typical area features. In addition, area features may mark vegetation, archeological sites or contaminate areas. GPS data gathering begins on any area location. The operator walks the area, returning to the point of beginning or allows the software to close the area feature automatically by joining the first position with the last position. The data interval is normally five seconds. Data Dictionary features can describe the area feature (pond, tennis court) and its condition (fresh water or brackish water). The area and perimeter measurements will appear in the GPS or GIS software.


What to Look Out For

While GPS data collection has improved in ease and speed, some obstacles remain. Solid or dense objects can block GPS signals. Wet trees with heavy branches and leaves can mask or attenuate GPS signals. Mountains and buildings can block satellite transmission. Multipath signals can corrupt GPS data. Multipath is a reflected signal from some nearby fence or surface. The resulting propagation delay can spoil measurement accuracy. GPS electronics advancements have reduced the multipath threat but GPS field operators should avoid obvious multipath environments.  Signal blocking can be reduced by careful mission planning. GPS mission planning software can model terrain to display satellite availability. As a result, data collection can be done during the best satellite hours.


Differential Correction

Signal errors can be reduced by differential correction. There are two differential correction choices: (1) Real-time differential correction, and (2) Post processing differential correction.  The correction process is the same. A base station with a reference position gathers satellite positions simultaneously with a GPS rover. The based station develops an error correction factor by comparing its known survey location with the error induced GPS signal. The correction factor can be transmitted real-time to a rover or logged to a file for postprocessing.  Postprocessing differential correction is more accurate and is preferred by GIS users. Real-time differential correction offers the advantage of accurate navigation to known waypoints.  The user does postprocessing differential correction in the office. GPS data is transferred from the datalogger to the processing software. The base station correction file is downloaded. Rover and base station are processed together to complete differential correction.

Corrected GPS data is edited to clean data positions and feature attributes. After correction and editing, the data is ready for GIS format conversion.


Data Conversion to GIS

A few years ago GPS data conversion to GIS could be difficult and time consuming.  Today the process is easy and straightforward. GPS manufacturers provide utilities for data conversion to popular GIS software. The differential corrected GPS rover files is converted automatically to the selected GIS format. Data format customization is possible. For example, many conversions do not transfer height since most GIS software works in a horizontal X, Y coordinate system. Customization allows GPS height transfer to GIS for contouring or surface treatments.


Other Applications

Most GPS data collection is ground-based. Major exceptions are fire management and wildlife inventory aerial data collection. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service use GPS in helicopters to locate fire perimeters and calculate acreage. In several major fires, aerial and ground GPS data collection has proven invaluable for rapidly learning structure damage, environmental damage and fire extent.  GIS is used to analyze and map the fire area.  A GPS equipped fast moving airplane or helicopter can quickly locate and inventory wildlife in hard to reach locations or over large areas.


GPS Advantages and Disadvantages

The experienced GPS users learn to optimize data gathering by understanding system strengths and weaknesses. Over the past few years GPS maturity has eliminated many system disadvantages. For example, before 1993 the full 24 GPS satellite constellation was not in place. As a result, periods existed where four satellites were not available for accurate positioning. This happens only rarely today. Technology has reduced the effect of multipath and GPS data gathering capabilities are being strengthened. The user must be informed, however, about GPS advantages and disadvantages.


bulletSpatial and tabular data are collected simultaneously.
bulletPosition accuracy is superior to conventional methods.
bulletCoordinate systems and reference datums can be easily changed in the field and in the processing software.
bulletGIS conversion is simple.
bulletData collection costs are lower than conventional methods.
bulletFeature visual inspection is possible while gathering data.
bulletData gathering is possible 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
bulletGPS is unaffected by weather.


bulletRequires training and retraining as technology changes.
bulletUrban canyon buildings can block satellite signals.
bulletHeavy foliage and thick branched trees can attenuate and/or block satellite signals.
bulletMulti-path reflective signals can make data inaccurate.
bulletRequires careful attention to system configuration and data collection standards and procedures.

The Future

External sensing devices will augment GPS data collection. Laser guns attached to a GPS receiver can do offsets to hard to reach features. A three-dimensional GPS position with attached features and attributes is provided. The laser gun reduces data collection costs and speeds data gathering. For example, a laser shot can be made to a manhole cover in a heavy traffic intersection without occupation. From one convenient location, nearby utility poles can be quickly captured with multiple shots. Features on private property can be shot without violating property boundaries.  Digital cameras are the next external sensing wave. The digital image is a valuable feature attribute for GIS display and query. GPS positions can be joined to scientific data collected by temperature probes and magnetometers. More external sensing devices are on the way.  GPS equipment will drop in price. Receivers will become smaller. These trends will increase GPS usage for GIS applications. As a result, GPS will become the preferred and essential tool for GIS data collection and conversion.



Richard Lewis is President of RLA Geosystems, a geopositioning dealer for Trimble Navigation, ESRI, Laser Technology and several differential correction services. He is a Certified Instruction in GPS and GIS. RLAís Web page is and E-Mail is



Thanks to Onword Press. This article appeared as a chapter in GIS Data Conversion.





GPS Glossary

Navstar The name give to GPS satellites. NAVSTAR is an acronym formed from Navigation Satellite Timing and Ranging.

GPS Global Positioning System. A GPS system consists of a space segment (up to 24 NAVSTAR satellites in six different orbits); The control segment with five monitor stations, one master control station and three upload stations. The NAVSTAR satellites carry extremely accurate atomic clocks and broadcast coherent simultaneous signals to ground-base GPS receivers.

Trilateration The measurement of distances to fixed positions to determine an originating location. The process is normally to control points on the surface of the earth. In GPS trilateration, the fixed positions are instead satellites orbiting the earth with distance determined by the GPS signal travel time to a location on the surface of the earth. A four satellite trilateration provides an accurate earth position.

RMS Root Mean Square. A method of measuring the dispersion of a data series around truth. 1RMS includes approximately 68 percent of the data points occur within this distance of truth. 2RMS includes approximately 95 percent of the data points occur within this distance of truth. SA at 100 meters is 2RMS. Most GPS stated accuracy is 1RMS.

SA Selective Availability is the artificial degradation of the satellite signal by the Department of Defense. A DOD program controls the accuracy of the pseudorange measurements, where the user receives false pseudorange in error by a controlled amount. The error in position caused by SA can be up to 100 meters. Differential GPS techniques can eliminate these effects.

Spatial Data Data relating to the geographic location of point, area or line features. Expressed in an x,y pair or a series of x,y pairs. The geographic location can be expressed in any number of geodetic or plane coordinate systems. Longitude/latitude or state plane coordinates are but two examples.

Tabular Data Data in tabular format which describes the spatial data. A dBase II records and fields tabular data format is common. Tabular data is essential to GIS for query, analysis and display without it only graphics exists. A GPS data dictionary provides the tabular data format to join with spatial data to transfer to GIS software.

Data Dictionary Information that describes features that will be located in the field. This description includes feature names, data type classification (point, line or area), attribute types, and attribute values. After being created on a PC, a data dictionary is downloaded to a data collector and used when collecting data in the field.

DGPS Differential correction GPS. The process of correcting GPS positions at an unknown location with data collected simultaneously at a known location (base station). The process of differentially correcting one receiverís location relative to anotherís can be done during postprocessing or in real-time. In postprocessed DGPS, the base station logs the measurements in a computer file so rover users can differentially correct their data. In real-time DGPS, the base station calculates and broadcasts the error for each satellite as each measurement is received, permitting rover users to see differentially corrected data immediately.

Rover Any mobile GPS receiver collecting data during a field session. The receiverís position can be computed relative to another stationary GPS base station.

Base Station Also called a reference station. A receiver that is set up at a known location specifically to collect data for differentially correction rover files. The base station calculates the error for each satellite and, through differential correction, removes SA and improves the accuracy of the roving GPS receiver positions collected at unknown locations.

Almanac A file that contains orbit information on all satellites, clock corrections, and atmospheric delay parameters. It is transmitted by a GPS satellite to a GPS receiver, where it facilitates rapid satellite acquisition. It can be downloaded from the receiver to the GPS processing software where it is used to predict the best times to collect GPS data.

Many definitions courtesy Trimble Navigation, Ltd.