Expert Blog

Your guide to the wonderful world of satellite navigation

Remember when satellite navigation seemed like something from a science fiction movie? When we’d coo at those small, rectangular screens on the dashboards of the fanciest cars? Wow, that Beamer is being directed from space!

That wasn’t all that long ago – yet nowadays, of course, we’re much more blasé about sat-nav. According to the Government’s National Travel Survey, almost half of the cars in England have some sort of satellite navigation technology installed in them. Asking TomTom or Google for directions has become a normal part of life.

To mark the steady proliferation of sat-nav systems, we thought we’d collect some of our favourite facts about them. Because, yep, we do have favourite facts about satellite navigation. Here they are:

1. You’ve got the US military to thank… The Global Position System that our sat-nav devices rely on was developed by the US Department of Defence. They began work in the 1970s, before launching it in 1995 and then making it available for civilian use. At first, there were 24 satellites available. Now there’s around 32. By relaying with at least four of them, and making calculations based on space and time, our own GPS receivers can work out our position on the globe.

2. …and yourself to blame. It’s true, the system itself isn’t perfect. The signal from the satellites can be corrupted by atmospheric interference or by tall buildings. Our sat-nav devices might then make things worse with out-of-date maps or with confusing presentation. But, when it comes to all those stories about people driving to the wrong towns or into lakes, don’t be quick to rule out human error. As some studies highlight, the mistakes are often to do with drivers losing concentration or just inputting the wrong information in the first place. Besides, a sat-nav shouldn’t be a substitute for common sense. If yours is ‘telling’ you to drive off a cliff… erm, don’t.

3. The market’s changing rapidly… Five to ten years ago, the future belonged to one form of sat-nav: the TomTom-style ‘personal navigation device’ that could be stuck on your car window. They were getting cheaper and better, and made for good Christmas presents. But now that we’ve actually reached the future, those personal navigation devices are dying out. According to the analysts at Berg Insight, sales declined from 28 million units in 2012 to 22 million in 2013. They expect it to sink to 10 million by 2019. So, what happened? For the most part, the rise of the smart phone is responsible. Whether you want satellite navigation in your pocket or in your car, there’s now an app for that.

4. …but changing into what? Generally speaking, our sat-nav systems are fine for helping us drive around. But what happens when the cars can drive themselves? Sadly, our current GPS isn’t precise enough for autonomous vehicles. Even improved versions aren’t really good enough, when the difference of a few metres can mean the difference between squashing a pedestrian and navigating safely around them. That’s why GPS will be just one of the eight different sensors in Google’s self-driving cars. The question is whether some of those other technologies will eventually take over and supersede what we already have.

5. Sat Nav, superhero. But before we get ahead of ourselves, and lament the demise of sat-nav as we know it, let’s celebrate its ineffable power. Not only does it deliver us, most of the time, from A to B. It also catches criminals. A few years ago, a couple of burglars from London were busted because the sat-nav system in their van recorded them at the scenes of their crimes. Thank you, TomTom.

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