There are two systems, originally developed by the military, that we use every day with little thought. One of them is the internet. Originally the internet was a system built by the military technology think tank, ARPA, now called DARPA, in the late 1960s. The original ARPANET was a communications system that was designed to work even if some of the relays were taken offline by a nuclear attack. The original backbone of the communication system was built with taxpayer dollars and, eventually opened up for scientific and research work. In the 1990s the core systems were turned over to the major telephone companies to manage and the network has grown to change the world in ways few could have imagined, including being able to read this article!
Today another military technology is quickly becoming a fixture in our lives and that’s the Global Positioning System, or GPS. Many people don’t realize that GPS is another military technology that’s already changing the world as we know it. It now seems quaint to see movies where people had to stop and ask for directions or fumble with paper maps. Today you pull out your smartphone and, in just a few seconds, know exactly where you are in the world.
An Amazing System
There are a lot of anecdotal stories about GPS leading drivers into a lake or river and a few have even died when they took undeveloped roads and got stuck somewhere remote. While those stories get a lot of attention, the number of lives saved and gains in efficiency from GPS far outweigh the occasional mistake. Like the internet and the weather service, the U.S. government does not charge companies or individuals for using GPS technology. It’s such a valuable part of commerce that the value to business has been estimated to be around $3 trillion dollars.
Enabling The World Of Tomorrow
The combination of the internet and GPS will be the driving force in mobile technology for years to come. I’m not talking about Pokemon Go but the game’s popularity is a clue that GPS based entertainment is one of the new frontiers of development. GPS will enable self-driving cars and trucks to plot their routes and aircraft flight management systems to fly around storms without getting lost. GPS will enable a new generation of robot transports that operate in the air, on our rail system and on the ocean. The GPS system, soon to be joined by systems run by Russia, China and the European Union is just beginning to change the world in ways we can only imagine. GPS is today where the internet was in the late 1990s.
Not All Glamorous
There are some dark elements to GPS technology in that it carries the ability to track people who don’t know they’re being tracked. GPS trackers, once bulky units the size of a cigarette pack, are today the size of a dime. The need for those devices has been replaced with the GPS locater system everyone carries with them today, which is their smartphone. What most people don’t realize is that GPS works even if your phone is shut off. Even powered off there are some low-level subsystems still operating and GPS is one of them. To completely disable the ability to track your phone you have to remove the battery. GPS radio signals can also be spoofed, leading mapping systems astray.
There's also the potential for GPS data, aggregated over a span of years, to be astoundingly intrusive. It would give government and private companies a powerful tool in predicting your movements.
Here To Stay
GPS technology is simply too useful and valuable not to use. Before dismissing the success of Pokemon Go, keep in mind that many of the early internet advances were driven by game developers. The next generation of mobile technology development will be driven by your location. Already services, like Uber, which need the GPS capability of your phone to succeed, are restructuring many of the services that govern our daily lives. Many have used Uber to replace owning a car and these are only the vanguards of even more extreme changes.
So, the next time you look up in the night sky and see a small dot tracking between the stars, you may be looking at one of the constellation of satellites that are bringing us the future.