Global positioning devices used to find trucks, fly planes, or locate missing skiers and hikers are being given pinpoint accuracy previously available only to the military. Until now, civilians using a United States-built network of satellites for navigation got a less-accurate reading than the military out of fear that potential enemies could use the system to target missiles.
The United States no longer will jam the signal for civilian users, but can still selectively block the improved Global Positioning System (GPS) over any given region at will, administration officials said.
The difference will mean satellite navigation can be used to track a missing person to an area about the size of a tennis court. Until now, the area of intense search would have been more like a football field.
GPS is used by more than 4 million people worldwide for everything from navigating in traffic to oil exploration. Boaters and hikers use handheld GPS devices, and similar equipment is now installed in trucks and in the dashboards of some cars. The change will make satellite navigation devices people already own 10 times more accurate, said Neal Lane, White House science adviser, and won't require the purchase of new machines. "The significance of this decision is huge," said Richard Langley, a GPS consultant and professor of geodesy at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. "It will affect a large number of GPS application areas."
Fleet owners have been using GPS tracking systems for navigation and freight tracking services, and are finding that the use of GPS is more effective than ever.
"Our tracking and mapping systems will see a huge boost in accuracy," said Larry Carroll, president of Fleetboss, which supplies GPS-based tracking systems for companies with sales, service, and delivery fleets. "Fleet managers will benefit from having more accurate records of vehicle locations and usage, and individual drivers will benefit from the much-enhanced navigational capability."
"This reinforces the growth predictions for commercial and consumer GPS applications," said Ron Simmonds, president and CEO of Toronto-based AirIQ. "We believe GPS will remain a primary technology for vehicle location for some time to come." The military will still use an encrypted, highly accurate version of the system for guiding precision weaponry such as the missiles used in the Gulf War and last year's Balkan air strikes.