The evolution of technology has always been one of the greatest markers of a progressive society. We use technology in every aspect of our lives, from food to transportation and communication. As people’s needs change, the role of technology is to rise up to fulfill those needs.
The popularity of GPS technology is perhaps one of the best ways to do this: GPS was once classified as military grade technology and was not accessible to civilians. Now, it is available to anyone and is used everywhere: Aviation companies use GPS simulators to train their pilots and find the best flying routes, shipping industries use it to calculate their ETAs, and your average young professional uses it to locate the nearest coffee shop.
GPS’ Roots in the Cold War Era
GPS stands for “Global Positioning System,” and uses a network of satellites orbiting the earth to transmit data to a receiver on the planet’s surface. The satellites form a grid that triangulates the receiver’s location, allowing them to determine exactly where they are. This is the “Doppler Effect.”
In the 1960s, during the Cold War, the U.S. military began using satellites to track submarines carrying nuclear missiles. The Department of Defense (DOD) continued to fine tune this technology to create a more reliable satellite navigation system. They launched the first satellite in 1978, dubbed the Navigation System with Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR). Along with 23 other satellites, the system became fully operational in the early 90s.
Giving Civilians Access
GPS became available to civilians after former president Ronald Reagan opened it up to the public. This was in response to a tragedy involving a Korean Airlines flight, which accidentally entered Russian airspace in 1983, leading to the deaths of 269 lives as Russia’s military shot them down.
In the early 2000s, GPS systems became even more refined after former president Bill Clinton decided to switch off its “blurring” features, which limited civilian access and made it less accurate. Lifting the blurring feature improved accuracy to within five meters, rather than 100 meters as it was in the past.
Now, we use GPS for businesses, for finding our way through cities, and even as a mapping feature in mobile games like Pokémon Go. It has come a long way from its roots in the Cold War and is now an indispensable piece of technology in people’s everyday lives.