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Locating a Market

Having access to $17 billion in capital equipment has also led the commercial GPS industry to develop technology solutions well before the market asked for them, at price points too high for the demand. GPS was a natural enabler for ocean navigation, where Trimble Navigation made its first mark, and for desert warfare, where flat horizons permit access to up to 12 satellite readings at once. Beyond these applications, handheld GPS receivers for consumer use have been niche-marketed to death-for golfers to measure their drives, for hikers to find the trail, and for the devout to find the precise direction to Mecca. Receivers have replaced Mont Blanc pens as the corporate novelty gift of choice. But this splintered market has not led to a robust industry. “The problem with this stuff is how to make money from it,” says Tom Starnes, director of embedded microcomponents at Dataquest, a market-research firm in San Jose, Calif. “Just because a technology is feasible doesn’t mean I’m going to pull my wallet out and buy it.”

The signal provided by the DOD network has also proven to be too inaccurate for many commercial applications. Even without the intentional degradation of the signal that civilian users must suffer, the basic GPS network only provides accuracy to within seven to 10 meters. That’s sufficient if your aim is to bomb a military installation, but totally inadequate if you’re trying to locate a fire hydrant hidden in a field of weeds. And the signal that civilians receive can reliably tell your position only to within 70 to 100 meters. Hikers have died in Alaskan snowstorms, so trusting of their handheld GPS receiver that they continued to search for the shelter they knew was agonizingly near, instead of digging in and saving themselves. Others have walked off precipices in Scotland in the fog.

A technical solution known as differential GPS uses an earth-based receiver/transmitter at a previously surveyed point, which can receive the satellite signals, compare the GPS-determined location with the actual location, calculate the error, and broadcast corrections to handheld receivers in the vicinity. In 1994, Ashtech implemented such a system for the Coast Guard, providing accuracy to within a few meters along the entire coastline of the continental United States, sections of the Mississippi River basin, the Great Lakes region, Puerto Rico, and portions of Alaska and Hawaii. Trimble Navigation, Ashtech and a third company, Novatel, also market differential GPS packages including portable transmitters that can be placed over a surveyed site, providing location information with a margin of error measured in millimeters.

“In the commercial market, accuracy is addictive,” says Trimble. “To get to the level of accuracy people demand, you need differential techniques. Selective availability really isn’t a factor anymore, since even without it the accuracy would not be precise enough. It’s a completely different problem from the one we were trying to solve when we began the company.”

After 20 years of battling government interference and disappointing growth, two developments are finally giving the commercial GPS industry reason to hope. The first is the sinking price of GPS-enabled chip sets, which are following Moore’s Law with a vengeance and will soon be available for about $10. With basic hardware that cheap, it becomes economical to embed GPS in cell phones, pagers and dashboards, without significantly raising the price of these items. “What held up market adoption had nothing to do with GPS,” says Dave Nelson, director of GPS programs at the Aerospace Corp., an organization that works with the Air Force to maintain and develop GPS satellites and ground-based support. “It has more to do with getting the cost down so any consumer wants it, instead of just being something attractive to gadget freaks.”

The second development in GPS’s favor is the rise of complementary technologies such as digital mapping and wireless communication. Digital mapping translates GPS’s latitude and longitude readings into something useful. For many of us that means dashboard displays that show where we are and how to get where we’re going. For farmers, the combination of GPS and geographical information systems helps pinpoint the yield effects of fertilizer application down to the square meter, thus lowering fertilizer use, reducing pollution from runoff, and increasing yields. And communication networks in combination with GPS allow for a new range of applications, from tracking fleets of taxis to locating your lost child in the mall by paging her. The first widely adopted communication-based application for GPS will likely be a national emergency service that pinpoints the location of cellular phones calling 911, mandated by the Federal Communications Commission to be in place by 2001.

It’s the communication-based GPS applications that really energize Trimble. “The most exciting application of GPS in my mind has to do with the guidance and control of mobile platforms,” he says. “To get to there, we need to integrate with allied technologies. What’s truly valuable isn’t GPS, it’s knowledge of position. GPS is just a fundamental way to get there.”

The value of such GPS systems are clear, agrees Ron Stearns, an analyst for research firm Frost & Sullivan who has studied the GPS market. Stearns argues that “the benefits are very easy to see in the area of emergency response, where you can better direct available emergency response vehicles to a location.” Indeed, according to Stearns, communications-driven applications will fuel the GPS market, which Frost & Sullivan predicts will grow at a steady 20 percent over the next few years.

But when you start to link GPS with communications networks that monitor movements remotely, some folks get nervous. The same technological infrastructure that makes it so easy to manage physical assets, like truck fleets and boxcars, can also be used to monitor human activity. Is this an intrusion society is willing to invite? The idea of “being watched all the time” bothers the University of Massachusetts’ Richardson.

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