Where would we be without GPS? Our quiz looks at the history of a technology we all rely on
The search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 illustrates one thing very clearly. We have become so used to accurate satellite navigation that we are astonished that an airliner can disappear so completely.
Satnav has become a technology which we can truly say we would be lost without. Since its arrival in commercial products around the year 2000, GPS has become a basic feature on smartphones. We now routinely use it to find where we are going. Yet not long ago, navigation relied simply on landmarks and the stars.
Lost without GPS
Technology has always been intrinsic to navigation, and developments have been spurred by disasters. The calculation of longitude relies on accurate measurements of time, and only became possible when better clocks were developed – in response to the loss of ships in the 18th century.
GPS was a military development, but was opened to the public because civilian airliners were straying from their courses into danger. Now, we take it as a given that any moving object will be trackable. In a plane we expect to watch the progress of our flight on screens, while in our cars we demand systems that will tell us which turning to take to reach our destination.
The first commercial GPS navigation devices were standalone units, that quickly became integrated with satnav systems for cars and then into phones, where they have become an expected feature.
In fact, navigation now uses a number of other options alongside satellites, including Wi-Fi signals and of course the cellphone network itself, but the global positioning systems which have been put into our skies remain one of the most impressive achievements of the human race.
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