How Did We Get Here?

When was the last time you actually asked somebody for directions? While we are starting to lose the charm of relying on people (“Turn left where the Laser Tag Palace used to be”), our chances of getting where we want to be are much greater than ever before. Where the tools of cartographers (map makers) were once expensive paper and fancy pens, they are now software and electronic devices. This is all thanks to the advances in geomatics, the science of gathering geographic information, analyzing and interpreting it, and then distributing it to the masses. This field combines two disciplines: cartography and data management. The main tools used in geomatics are Global Positioning System (GPS), Global Information Systems (GIS), and remote sensing.

Beyond Your Mobile Device

Perhaps the most popular current use of geomatics is digital mapping, or figuring out where you are and pointing you where you want to be. Mobile mapping has proven to be a valuable tool for fast and cost-effective data collection. Political lobbyists and nonprofit organizations, for instance, are using it as a way to identify legislative districts and demographic patterns. Engineers have used the technology to create maps of earthquake activity and then make appropriate improvements to building codes. GPS plays a crucial role in the U.S. military by guiding missiles and bombs, in addition to determining flight paths and plotting courses through dense terrain.

A Brief History

The history of GPS can be traced back to the early days of the Space Race. When the Soviet Union beat the United States into space by launching Sputnik in 1957, American scientists hurried to find a way to track the satellite. They soon discovered they could track Sputnik by applying the principles of the Doppler Effect. In the 1960s, the U.S. Navy used six satellites to improve submarine navigation. By the 1980s, tracking by Doppler was replaced by triangulation and signal timing. This means that three satellites locate an object through the intersections of three separate signals. Today’s GPS (whose official government name is NAVSTAR) consists of a cluster of thirty satellites placed at a 12,000 mile high orbit above the earth. This network of satellites orbit the earth every twelve hours while broadcasting radio signals. GPS devices on the ground determine location by calculating the difference the signals received from four or more satellites.

No Easy Feat

Just because digital mapping is so popular doesn’t mean it is easy. The process of collecting accurate data is challenging and very time consuming. Mobile mapping combines satellite imagery, federal and state maps, as well as mobile mapping vans. These are vehicles that are equipped with up to six cameras and ground-profiling radar. These vans are driven around and take 360° pictures of everything they pass. That data is then poured over by analysts before it is programmed by a software company and accessed by users. That leaves a lot of room for error.

When Apple released its latest version of its iPhone–the first with its new mobile map application Maps–many users found routes that didn’t make sense, and learned that landmarks were in the wrong location. Some industry experts believe Apple rushed to get its product in the market and is now suffering the consequences. But the company is committed to setting themselves apart from Google, one of the current leaders in mobile mapping.

With maps as one of the most popular applications on our mobile devices, it is clear that they are no longer seen as a mere convenience, but are fundamentally changing the way we live and do business.

Dig Deeper

How often do you or those you drive with use a GPS device when you go somewhere new? What programs do you use and why? What would you do if your battery died or lost service?