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Insights & Trends 3 min read

How does GPS work?

A satellite orbits Earth in space.

We've been using GPS — or Global Positioning System — for decades, but do you how it gets you to your destination?

GPS is a revolutionary technology that has transformed the way we navigate our world. Whether you're finding your way to your hotel in a new city or tracking your daily run, GPS plays a crucial role in providing accurate and real-time location data. But have you ever wondered how GPS actually works?

An illustration of different map layers.

In your orbit

At its core, GPS relies on a network of around 31 satellites that are constantly orbiting the Earth. These satellites continuously transmit signals that contain precise time and location information. When you use a GPS-enabled device, such as a smartphone, it receives these signals and calculates your precise position based on the time it takes for the signals to reach your device. This process, known as trilateration, involves measuring the distance between your device and multiple satellites to determine your exact location.

Unisphere from 1964 Worlds Fair in Flushing Meadow Coronal Park, Queens, New York

Going atomic

To achieve the high level of accuracy we associate with GPS, atomic clocks play a crucial role. Each GPS satellite is equipped with an atomic clock, which is a highly precise timekeeping device that uses the vibrations of atoms to measure time. 

It is considered one of the most accurate methods for measuring time intervals with an expected error of only one second in about 100 million years. And that's not all. The GPS receiver in your device receives the signals received from the satellites and performs complex calculations and data processing to interpret them, further refining the accuracy of your location data.

Fidelity Editorial card 1-UniMap

The future is now

As technology continues to advance, so does GPS. With the introduction of newer satellite systems like Europe's Galileo and China's BeiDou, GPS accuracy has reached unparalleled levels. Beyond navigation, GPS now finds applications in various industries. It can make daily tasks easier, helping commuters catch their bus on time and shoppers have a more enjoyable experience

Public services and agriculture also benefit from the system, enabling efficient route planning for ambulances, precise crop monitoring for farmers and rapid response during crises. As we embrace the era of self-driving cars and smart cities, GPS will play an even more crucial role in shaping our future.

As we navigate through our daily lives, it's important to recognize the complex processes behind GPS technology. By understanding how it works and acknowledging its wide-ranging benefits, we can make better informed choices both in and outdoors. 

So, the next time you rely on your navigation app or track your morning run, remember the extraordinary engineering that drives this seemingly effortless experience.

Maja Stefanovic

Maja Stefanovic

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