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Is a GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM (GPS) essential to RV travel?

One thing is sure - a Global Positioning System certainly makes outdoor life easier. Far more than a fancy electronic gadget, a GPS is a sophisticated electronic device used accurately to navigate large distances on land, sea and air.

For a relatively small outlay, you can program in your destination, and get concise driving direction to wherever it is you want to go. Obviously, they are specially useful in areas you are visiting for the first time, making them ideal for RV travel. Handheld models are great for hiking and mountain biking, and greatly enhance most outdoor activities.

But what, actually, is behind this impressive array of electronic wizardry? How does it all come together in a small, beneficial and relatively cheap package?

Owned and operated by the US AIR FORCE, but provided as a free service to all users around the world, the GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM, or GPS, is a constellation consisting of over two dozen satellites orbiting the Earth. Positioned at an altitude of 12,600 miles (20,200 kms) above the earth, the satellites broadcast precise timing signals allowing any GPS receiver to accurately pinpoint its location in terms of latitude, longitude and altitude around the clock, in any weather, day or night, anywhere on Earth.

The wide range of GPS models available have turned the GPS system into a vital global utility. The system is indispensable to modern military and civilian navigation on land, sea and in the air. It is also an extremely important tool for land surveying and map-making.

In late 2005, the first in a series of next-generation GPS satellites was added to the constellation, offering users several new capabilities. These included a second civilian GPS signal for enhanced accuracy and reliability. It is intended that in the near future, additional next-generation satellites will be added to the constellation, increasing coverage of the additional civilian channel, as well as adding a third and fourth civilian signal and advanced military capabilities to the system.

The Wide-Area Augmentation System, in use since the year 2000, increases the accuracy of GPS signals to within 6 feet (about 2 meters) for compatible receivers. Differential GPS techniques have the ability to further increase accuracy, to about 1/2 inch (about 1 cm).

While modern GPS systems are extremely accurate, they cannot replace a proper detailed map and compass for off-road navigation. You can use the GPS to navigate to a certain landmark, such as a planned camping spot.

You can program in routes to follow, positioning in waypoints, and the system will display a route and even calculate distance and estimated driving time - but you will still need a map and compass to navigate successfully.

GPS systems designed for vehicular use, use position data to locate the user on a road in the unit's map database. Using this database, the unit can give directions to other locations along roads also in the database.

The accuracy of GPS can be improved in a number of ways:

Modern GPS receivers have been miniaturized to just a few integrated circuits and so are becoming very economical, making the technology accessible to virtually everyone.

These days GPS systems are finding their way into cars, boats, planes, construction equipment, movie making gear, farm machinery, even laptop computers. GPS handheld systems are also becoming increasingly popular.

How The GPS System Works:

GPS Civilian Applications: Navigation

Civilian applications for the GPS system are as as an international navigation aid for use in cars, airplanes, and ships. Personal Navigation Devices (PND) such as hand-held GPS are used by mountain climbers and hikers. Glider pilots use the logged signal to verify their arrival at turn points in competitions. Low cost GPS receivers are often combined with PDAs, cell phones, car computers, or vehicle tracking systems. Other civilian applications include automated agricultural harvesters, location of stolen vehicles, fleet supervision and more.

Additional GPS Functions

GPS Accuracy

The position calculated by a GPS receiver relies on three accurate measurements: the current time, the position of the satellite, and the time delay for the signal.

GPS receivers vary widely in accuracy, reflected in varying price levels of different models. Early consumer-grade receivers typically included six to eight receivers. As the computer industry has improved the state of the art in chipmaking, the cost of implementing these receivers has fallen dramatically, and today even low-cost hand held receivers typically have twelve receivers. More expensive units, known as "dual-frequency receivers", also tune in the L2 signals (Second civilian GPS signal) in order to correct for ionospheric delays.

Another major factor in the accuracy of a GPS fix is the amount of processing applied to the received signals. This is a function of the performance of the electronics and the required battery life. Typical in other areas of applied electronics, these factors have also been dramatically affected by improved chip making, so that current low cost receivers vastly outperform much more expensive earlier models.

GPS receivers may include an input for differential corrections, using the RTCM SC-104 format. This is typically in the form of a RS-232 port at 4,800 bps speed. Data is actually sent at a much lower rate, which limits the accuracy of the signal sent using RTCM. Receivers with internal DGPS receivers can outperform those using external RTCM data. The cost of implementing these receivers is also falling dramatically, and even low-cost units are commonly including WAAS receivers today.

Many GPS receivers can relay position data to a PC or other device using the NMEA 0183 protocol. NMEA 2000[12] is a newer and less widely adopted protocol. Both are proprietary and are controlled on a for-profit basis by the US-based National Marine Electronics Association. References to the NMEA protocols have been compiled from public records, allowing open source tools like gpsd to read the protocol without violating intellectual property laws. Other proprietary protocols exist as well, such as the SiRF protocol. Receivers can interface with external devices via a number of means, such as a serial connection, a USB connection or even a Bluetooth wireless connection.

GPS Handheld System

The GPS handheld system is probably the best choice for outdoor pursuits, since their small screens are more easily read at arm's length than in a moving car. Most GPS handheld systems store a pre-loaded data base of basic maps, many will allow you to download other maps from your computer.

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