GPS: What Is It and How Does it Work in Surveying?

GPS has become part of everyday life and a useful tool for surveyors. But how does it really work?

Article By: Francesca Burke
Last Update: July 2019

The History of GPS

The term ‘global positioning system’ or ‘GPS’ has become synonymous with anything regarding satellite navigation. Satellite navigation, or satnav, is a system that uses satellites and small electric receivers based on Earth to determine the receiver’s location. There are a handful of global navigation satellite systems, usually run by the USA, the European Union and Russia.

The first satellite navigation system was America’s Global Positioning System (GPS). It was initially developed by the US Navy in the 1960s to improve how ships navigated the oceans; five satellites orbited Earth allowing ships to fix their position once an hour.

Today we can use satellite navigation to pinpoint the location of our phones, for directions in car-based satnavs and when using industrial equipment. The technology is now advanced enough to determine a receiver’s location to just a few metres almost immediately – as anyone who’s turned to Google Maps when they’re lost can tell you!

Using GPS in Surveying

Global positioning systems are a brilliant addition to the surveying industry because they provide precise, accurate mapping far faster than conventional methods. A surveying job that once took a large team of surveyors several weeks will now take one or two people just a few hours, thus improving productivity.

Additionally, satellite navigation is not limited by ‘lines of sight’ visibility in the same way other survey stations are, as stations can be placed anywhere with a view of the sky and at great distances from one another. This comes in useful for surveying waterways where there are fewer points of reference on land.

You can learn even more about GPS and its uses on the Ordnance Survey website!

GPS constellation

GPS in the Wider World

GPS has impacted most areas of our lives – from allowing us to track rare or endangered animals to timestamping financial transactions and helping industries to co-ordinate supply chains. So useful is GPS that in February 2019 the engineers who worked on the original project were awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, which is the highest honour in the world for engineers!

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