PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Twenty years ago, the
United States Air Force announced the Global Positioning
System had achieved Full Operational Capability. On July 17,
1995, a total of 24 satellites were on orbit, providing
global 24-hour coverage. In the two-decades since, GPS has
been woven into nearly every aspect of human activity, from
military operations to sports.
At the time "FOC" was
announced, GPS had already proven its worth during Operation
Desert Storm, allowing ground forces to navigate the
featureless desert terrain, even when the system had only 16
satellites providing about 19 continuous hours of coverage
per day. Today, roughly two-thirds of all munitions being
used to combat ISIS rely on some form of GPS guidance.
Nearly forty years ago, the Air Force launched the first
Global Positioning System satellite, dubbed Navstar. But
even the most visionary of those people involved with that
first launch probably could not have guessed how much GPS
would eventually impact the world.
"It is amazing how
people continue to find new and innovative uses for the GPS
signal," said Micah Walter-Range, Space Foundation Director
of Research and Analysis.
"GPS can be used on a
personal level for summoning a taxi or ridesharing service
to your precise location, or for letting your 'smart home'
devices know when you are near your house so they can be
ready and waiting for you. Businesses also rely heavily on
the precision timing of the GPS signal, which enables
companies to capitalize on the reliability and accuracy of
an atomic clock for a relatively low cost," he said.
Part of life
technology is woven into nearly every area of modern life
from banking to farming, from complex military operations to
how athletes train. According to the Global Navigation
Satellite Systems Agency, there are four billion GPS-enabled
devices worldwide, a number that is expected to double in
the next five years. A recent study by research firm Markets
and Markets estimates the global GPS market will reach over
$26 billion by 2016.
precision timing allows a business to time-stamp
transactions regardless of location. A company knows its
time-stamp will be the same in New York as it is in Tokyo.
This synchronization is critical for keeping global
telecommunications and financial networks from grinding to a
Recreational users are creating art or messages
using GPS tracking, making the world their canvas.
"Recently a man in Japan used GPS tracking to create a
marriage proposal that spanned more than 4,300 miles," said
Walter-Range. "We expect individuals and businesses to keep
coming up with new applications that the creators of GPS
would never have imagined."
A military tool, A civilian
With the proliferation of GPS uses, it
is easy to forget it started as a military technology, one
that is still integral to military operations.
"Using GPS on the battlefield goes beyond navigation and
precision timing," said Lt. Col. Todd Benson commander, 2nd
Space Operations Squadron, which maintains the GPS
constellation. "From troops on the ground, ships at sea and
aircraft over targets, today nearly every military operation
has some type of GPS tie-in and support."
Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, is GPS-aided. That's the
weapon of choice for precision guided munitions. Some people
might know it as a smart bomb; GPS is what makes it smart."
GPS is also making parachutes smart. The Joint Precision
Airdrop System, or JPADS, can steer itself to a drop zone a
significant distance from its release point. JPADS can keep
both the aircraft and the troops on the ground safer because
neither has to move through dangerous areas to make the
drop. JPADS can also deliver to multiple ground targets from
the same airdrop.
GPS is also used heavily in air
operations, from basic three-dimensional positioning to
enabling aircraft to find each other for refueling
operations, performing precise maneuvers in
three-dimensional airspace. It is indispensable to Search
and Rescue crews, for both military and civilian operations.
Brought to the world by Airmen
So, how many people does it take to operate a system
that many people rely on, both civilian and military?
"If you go to Schriever Air Force Base today and you
walk into the 2nd Space Operations Squadron, in a little
room you'll find seven Airmen," said General John Hyten,
commander, Air Force Space Command, in a recent speech.
"(Their) average age will be about 23 years old. Those
Airmen are providing everything that is GPS for the entire
world. Everything," he said.
"So if you're on a bass
boat in the middle of Alabama; if you're on a golf course in
the middle of Scotland; wherever you happen to be using GPS,
those seven Airmen, average age 23, are providing those
capabilities. That's pretty amazing."
Air Force Space
Command continues to enhance the GPS signal through
technology upgrades. GPS III is scheduled to launch in 2017
and will be a more robust, reliable vehicle with a longer
mission life, complete with multiple signals to support both
military and civilian users.
By U.S. Air Force Michael Slater
Comment on this article