Finding Your Way

Navigation systems move beyond high-end cars

GPS-based navigation systems — once considered luxury add-ons for high-end cars — are becoming as commonplace as car stereos. As receivers become smaller and more economical, the technology is becoming accessible to virtually everyone. And the uses of GPS don’t stop with navigation; GPS technology is making everyday life more convenient through a host of commercial, mass transit, and public safety applications.

Developed and funded by the Department of Defense, the backbone of GPS is a series of 24 satellites that transmit and relay data to ground stations. “GPS has a lot of untapped potential because it has recently been released for civilian use by the federal government, thanks to advances in the technology,” says Dominique L. Green, an electrical engineer with the IT management giant Accenture. “You can only guess what new, innovative technologies will exist.”

Today, most CDMA cell phones on the market come with GPS-enabled chips to comply with the Federal Communications Commission’s Enhanced 911 mandate, which seeks to improve the effectiveness and reliability of wireless 911 service. And companies are offering a range of mounted or handheld personal navigation solutions for your car, laptop, or PDA.

The GPS advantage is not just about getting to your next destination, it’s also about getting you there safely. In an effort to highlight ongoing security measures, the Transportation Security Administration recently awarded a grant to Houston-based Coach USA to fund emergency onboard communications systems with both GPS and cellular communications technology. Helping Coach USA upgrade 1,350 of its buses is Airo Wireless Media in Atlanta, a mobile location-based services company that distributes the Trackbox from Finnish brand Benefon.

“The Benefon Trackbox is a wireless GSM (global system for mobile communication) and GPS tracking unit,” says Leigh Miller, Airo’s director of marketing and communications. “It runs on the T-Mobile GSM network and utilizes short text messaging protocol to deliver location data.” With the Benefon system, the driver also has the option of using a hands-free voice channel to link to an emergency services dispatcher.

Of course with breakthroughs come drawbacks. Says Green, “The hindrance is that the [receivers] are relatively large and power dependent,” compared to other technologies already in use. While we shouldn’t expect to see GPS receivers embedded in most home-based electrical appliances or entertainment devices anytime soon, Green, a General Electric research scholar, believes that GPS technology will spill across many areas in the public/private sectors including asset management, law enforcement, people tracking, and emergency response.

What about privacy issues? “GPS is a one-way street,” says Dan Benjamin, an analyst at ABI Research, a New York-based technology market research firm. “GPS can be built into telematic services such as Onstar that do relay locations to call centers [but] the majority of navigation devices that are on the market today don’t transmit data.”

But still, according to Brendan I. Koerner, a research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation, privacy issues do come into play and the law simply doesn’t keep up with emerging technology. “We’re in a space right now where there is not

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