Future Of Navigation: GPS Without Satellites

POSTED BY Heather Johnson, UPDATED ON February 17th, 2023
Future of Navigation: GPS Without Satellites

Ever since satellites were sent into space, the Global Positioning System (GPS) has been on the cards as a method to help us navigate the Earth. Originally developed by the US Department of Defence back in the 1970s, it is now one of the most common accessories worldwide within the military, commercial, and civilian space.

The last few years have witnessed a particular surge in the use of GPS by the general public, particularly since the technology has become cheaper and mobile devices have become GPS enabled. However, one significant issue remains; the positioning device must have an unobstructed connection with four or more satellites in space in order to navigate without interruption.

Satellites used for navigation are positioned around 12,000 miles (20,000km) away from the Earth. By the time this signal reaches the Earth, it is fairly weak and can easily be affected by material obstructions and solar events. It looks unlikely that a solution to this problem will come any time soon, which has prompted research into other ideas.

Offline navigation has provided some respite from the problem of mobile devices, particularly tablets due to their large memory capacity, with many developers of such technology enabling users to download maps of cities, and now whole countries, over a Wi-Fi connection. This requirement does, however, raise a problem with offline navigation in that the maps must be downloaded beforehand. So anyone getting lost in an area they didn’t anticipate being in will be in a tricky situation.

A further problem for the smartphone is that downloading the maps consumes significant amounts of memory, which current smartphones have limited amounts of. These maps often come at a price too. Despite these issues, technology does provide a viable alternative.

British Aerospace Engineering (BAE) Systems have developed technology that exhibits the potential to complement and even replace the current GPS system. The NAVSOP navigation system (mainly the brainchild of Ramsey Faragher) does not rely on satellite signals but on radio waves, just like mobile phones and televisions. It operates by drawing on all the available radio waves in the vicinity, which help to indicate the user’s position. The obvious advantage to this is that radio waves are abundant and often have a very strong signal, which is not affected by any external factors.

The developers stress that in its current form, the technology has been designed to complement the traditional satellite navigation system. However, the system has also been given the ability to ‘learn’. As it works alongside GPS, it learns about its surroundings, steadily decreasing its reliability on GPS up to a point where it no longer requires it. This characteristic clearly has an advantage over offline navigation technology.

As well as helping with navigation, NAVSOP does have some other distinct uses that current technology cannot exploit, particularly because it can track objects and people even if they are in a building or underground. As long as the object or person has a device that uses radio waves for data transmission, the technology can track cars that have been stolen, persons who are missing as well as a variety of other possibilities.

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