The Essence of GPS Navigation: How It Works and Why It Matters

What GPS Navigation Is And How it Works

In a world where technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, one innovation that has fundamentally transformed the way we navigate and explore is GPS navigation. The acronym “GPS” stands for Global Positioning System, a network of satellites that work in harmony to provide accurate location information anywhere on Earth. In this comprehensive guide, we delve deep into the intricacies of GPS navigation, unraveling the mysteries of its functioning, and shedding light on its remarkable significance in our daily lives.

Understanding GPS Navigation

At its core, GPS navigation is a sophisticated system that enables precise determination of a receiver’s geographical location. It encompasses a constellation of satellites orbiting the planet, each meticulously programmed to transmit signals containing time and location data. These signals are then intercepted by GPS receivers, commonly integrated into devices like smartphones, tablets, and dedicated GPS units.

The Satellite Constellation

A typical GPS satellite orbits the Earth approximately twice a day, continuously transmitting signals towards our planet’s surface. The strength and accuracy of GPS navigation stem from the intricate interplay between these satellites. By having multiple satellites in view from any given location on Earth, a GPS receiver can triangulate its own position with remarkable precision.

Triangulation and Trilateration

Triangulation is a mathematical concept employed by GPS navigation. It involves measuring the angles between two known points and the location being determined. In contrast, trilateration relies on the measurement of distances between the receiver and three or more satellites. By combining both methods, GPS receivers can accurately pinpoint their location, taking into account elevation and altitude.

The Inner Workings of GPS

The functioning of GPS navigation hinges on the principles of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. The satellite clocks used in GPS are designed to run at a slower rate relative to clocks on Earth’s surface. This discrepancy in time is crucial to ensure that the signals transmitted by the satellites remain accurate as they travel through space. As the signals reach the receiver, they carry information about the precise time they were transmitted, allowing the receiver to calculate its distance from each satellite based on the signal’s travel time.

Applications and Benefits

The scope of GPS navigation’s impact is vast and ever-expanding. From personal navigation to industrial applications, its utility is truly remarkable.

Personal Navigation

The proliferation of smartphones equipped with GPS receivers has revolutionized personal navigation. Whether you’re traversing unfamiliar streets in a new city or embarking on an outdoor adventure, GPS-enabled devices offer turn-by-turn directions, real-time traffic updates, and even suggest alternate routes to optimize your journey.

Geocaching and Beyond

GPS navigation has also birthed an intriguing leisure activity known as geocaching. This modern-day treasure hunt involves using GPS coordinates to locate hidden containers, or “geocaches,” concealed in various locations around the world. It’s a testament to the versatility of GPS technology and its ability to foster engaging and interactive experiences.

Precision Agriculture

In the realm of agriculture, GPS navigation plays a pivotal role in precision farming. By equipping tractors and other machinery with GPS receivers, farmers can optimize the distribution of resources, minimize waste, and enhance crop yields. This technology enables the creation of precise maps that detail variations in soil composition, moisture levels, and other essential factors, facilitating informed decision-making.

Disaster Relief and Search and Rescue

During times of crisis, GPS navigation proves invaluable for disaster relief and search and rescue operations. Emergency responders utilize GPS technology to locate individuals in distress, coordinate rescue efforts, and ensure swift and accurate assistance.

The Future of GPS Navigation

As we peer into the future, the evolution of GPS navigation continues unabated. The system’s accuracy and capabilities are expected to improve even further, with advancements such as:

  • Augmented Reality Integration: Imagine a world where GPS overlays digital information onto the real environment through augmented reality glasses. This innovation could revolutionize how we navigate and interact with the world around us.

  • Autonomous Vehicles: Self-driving cars rely heavily on GPS navigation to navigate safely and efficiently. As autonomous vehicle technology advances, so too will the sophistication of GPS systems.

  • Indoor Positioning: The next frontier for GPS navigation lies indoors. Efforts are underway to create accurate indoor positioning systems, enabling seamless navigation within large, complex structures like shopping malls, airports, and office buildings.

Read More: Choosing The Best Handheld GPS Device

What GPS is and how it works

Features To Consider When Buying A Portable GPS Navigation System

GPS, an acronym for “Global Positioning System,” is a U.S. military technology that has been adopted for civilian use. Twenty-four orbiting Department of Defense satellites broadcast radio signals that through a GPS receiver, provide precise coordinate information worldwide.

The system was first conceptualized in the 1960s for worldwide U.S. military navigation. By the mid-1970 it became a joint effort by various branches of the U.S. armed services and was referred to as Navstar. Despite the official name, it was the term GPS that stuck. The system’s first major military debut was in 1991 when it contributed to the overwhelming success of Desert Storm. With the system still in its infancy, only 16 satellites were utilized and were especially located over the Persian Gulf area.

Handheld receivers helped allied forces navigate and maneuver around enemy positions in an unfamiliar desert without landmarks. The system was considered fully operational in 1995. Like its “Humvee” cohort, GPS has numerous practical civilian applications. For more military-related information be sure to check out our section GPS at War.

U.S. tax dollars were hard at work as Uncle Sam spent 17 billion to develop this system and we can use it for free. That’s right, no setup or monthly fees. Commercial, recreational, friend, and foe alike, anyone with a GPS receiver can access and use the system. That is why GPS units are referred to as receivers, they simply (or not so simply) receive the radio signals continually being broadcast from the 24 satellites.

We say not so simply because the way GPS works are rather scientific requiring the explanation of considerable technical information. This includes the satellites broadcasting two sets of signals, one military, and one civilian.

The Department of Defense’s ground control system operates the 24 orbiting satellites, placing 12 in each hemisphere. GPS receivers need to read at least three at a time to “triangulate” the equipment’s exact location.  Four are needed to provide a more actuate three-dimensional fix.

The GPS should not ever be shut off to civilians. Despite the satellites broadcasting separate military and civilian signals, even in times of crisis or war, it is unlikely that civilians will ever be denied access to the system. This is because of the great number of users that rely on the system including airlines, shipping, trucking, law enforcement, and various emergency response agencies. Even a Presidential Decision Directive was signed that guarantees GPS will always be available to civilians.

Hand-held receivers are about the size of a TV remote control. They include a built-in antenna and view screen. A vehicle mount unit looks similar to a marine fish finder with a larger screen and a remote antenna that looks like a hockey puck. Portable units typically have a 2” screen, and vehicle fixed mount units have a 4” screen. For visual ease of operation, the largest unit practical should be used.

Accuracy remains about the same regardless of the size or price, as long as the antenna has a clear view of the sky.  A GPS receiver should be able to lock onto its location anywhere in the world within 0 to15 meters.  With the government’s Selective Availability now shut off, the accuracy of most units averages approximately within two to three meters. Not perfect, but somewhere within 42 feet should be close enough to find your truck at the trailhead.  Thankfully in May of 2000, the government eliminated Selective Availability.  This was a U.S. military safeguard that deliberately made the civilian signal inaccurate up to 100 meters.

It was designed to prevent unfriendlies from using our technology against us in targeting bombs and missiles.  Up to a 100-meter inaccuracy was not that big of a deal unless you happen to be one of the unfortunate who died trying to find their shelter during a blizzard. The government got around the security problem by shutting down the signal around sensitive sites. That is why your screen will go blank while driving by a military base or while spying on Area 51.

For those users that require absolute accuracy such as land surveyors or ship captains negotiating reefs, there is a system known as Differential Correction or DGPS.  Land-based radio signals are used in conjunction with satellite signals to greatly improve accuracy.  To take advantage of this option, simply purchase a receiver capable of accepting DGPS signals.

Most modern receivers contain built-in electronic maps.  For example, the Garmin GPS 3 Plus includes North America, every major roadway and waterway in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.  Receivers have only so much memory preventing the maps from being very detailed, although they do include an impressive amount of data.  Do not expect the base map to include the nameless dirt road traveled down to your favorite camping spot. 

Fortunately, manufacturers provide additional memory allowing the user to upload greater detailed mapping information.  Detailed topographical maps are also available on CD-ROM that includes any part of the world.  Greater detail such as elevation lines sucks up the available memory, making it necessary to be selective on how much additional mapping can be added.  Some units also accept memory cards providing great detail of larger cities or ocean ports.

Read More: Best 10 Handheld GPS Units Reviews

An electronic map is viewed in greater or less detail by using a Zoom feature.  When initially viewing the Map Page, the current location arrow icon will be in the center of the screen.  The screen will also have a distance indicator to determine the scale of the current map.  The initial map will be larger making it easier to find the desired area.  Once the area is located, zooming in will increase the map’s detail.  Roads, waterways, and their names will appear as the map is zoomed into a specific area.  Most receivers have a wide zoom range from 2000 miles to 500 feet.

Using a rocker keypad, a cursor in the shape of a small arrow will move about the map.  A dialog box will display changing latitude/longitude coordinates and the distance from the current location.  This is useful for finding approximate distances to nearby locations.  For example, from our location in Springfield, Oregon, scrolling the cursor north up I-5, the arrow is placed on downtown Portland, Oregon.  It gives a distance of 103.5 miles.  Distance is “as the crow flies”, which appears accurate in this example because the driving distance is approximately 110 miles. It also shows that its direction is 7° north, and provides Portland’s latitude/longitude coordinates. We now have the option to save this destination as a Waypoint.

Note: GPS navigation displayed distances are straight-line as the crow flies.  Unless flying or sailing, mileage has to be increased to estimate the actual distance traveled on the ground.


In conclusion, GPS navigation stands as a testament to human ingenuity and innovation. Its ability to determine precise locations and guide us through unfamiliar territory has become an integral part of modern life. From personal navigation to revolutionizing industries, GPS continues to shape our world in profound ways. As technology advances, we eagerly anticipate the remarkable possibilities that lie ahead for GPS navigation.

Read More: How Many Satellites Make Up the GPS?