Just When You Think You’ve Found “Waldo” He moved.

GPS Satellites
GPS Satellites | Image by avionics.com

The popular “Where’s Waldo” books have fascinated children and adults alike for quite some time. According to Wikipedia it all started across the pond in England by an illustrator named Martin Hanford in 1986 when he was asked by his art director to draw a character with “peculiar” features so that his crowd pictures would have a focal point.

Where's Waldo?
Where’s Waldo? Banner | Image by

That was the birth of “Wally.” That was his name in England. For the United Stated and other locations his name was changed to “Waldo” and the character can be found in books, a television series, a comic strip and even a series of video games.

If you thought that this article is really about “Where’s Waldo” you would be wrong. I’m more interested in how you can locate places and figure out your current location. Yes, I mean Global Positioning Systems better known as “GPS.” The purpose of GPS is to give specific information which plots your exact location on planet earth. Have you ever wondered how it does that? Well, I have so here is how GPS was first developed.

GPS Tracking Solutions
GPS Tracking Solutions | Image by techcrunch.com

The starting point, as usual, is the formal definition of GPS. According to Wikipedia the American version of ” GPS, also known as NAVSTAR, is a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) that provides location and time information in all weather conditions anywhere on or near the earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. The GPS system operates independently of telephone or internet reception, though these technologies can enhance the usefulness of the GPS positioning information. The system was created and is maintained by the United States government. GPS is freely accessible to anyone who has a GPS receiver.

History Of GPS
History Of GPS | Image by slideshare.net

The story begins with Dr. Ivan Getting who was an Edison Scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was asked by the U.S. Air Force to develop a way to track InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMS). He was working for Ratheon Corporation and held the office of Vice President of the company. After he left Ratheon, Getting worked for the U.S. Defense Department to continue his GPS system research. A colleague of Getting, Professor Bradford Parkinson got onboard with the project and is credited as co-inventor of the GPS System. A third man, Roger Easton was also instrumental in GPS development on their team. Various sources seem to disagree on which one actually invented GPS so I opt for the team explanation. That way nobody’s feelings get hurt.

They developed TRANSIT which was the first satellite navigation system in 1960. It was comprised of five satellites that provided a navigational fix for Naval ships at one hour intervals. The Timation satellite was developed by the Navy in 1967 and was the first to place accurate clocks in space with is an important piece of technology needed for GPS.

Australia Moves
Australia Moves | Image by bbc.com

Let’s skip forward to present day and what triggered my interest in writing about GPS. A July 31, 2013 article published on news.com.au (Australia). It was written by Jamie Seidel  of the News Corp Australia Network. He explains that the Australian continent has been slowly moving to the North. Yes, the whole continent! It seems the last time Geoscience Australia, their government research and mapping service, aligned its Global Positioning System was back in 1994. The movement of tectonic plates is credited with causing the change in location. Since then Australia has moved about 1.5 meters (roughly 4 ft. 11 in.) to the North.The measured rate of movement is about 7 cm (roughly 2.75 in.) per year. They expect to have the new coordinates uploaded to the satellites by January 2017. The difference might not seem very significant, but when you look at what GPS is used for that difference could mean life or death to those using it. Seidel interviewed Dan Jaska of Geoscience Australia who said the 1.5 meter move doesn’t cause a problem for mobile phone systems since their accuracy is measured at about 5 meters (roughly 16 ft.4.85 in.). The problem arises when you have GPS controlling driverless or autonomous cars. That little difference could place the vehicle either in the center of the driving lane or straddling the center line or worse yet in the lane of the oncoming traffic. This would also cause a problem with accurately flying drones. If Australia moved 1.5 meters what about the rest of the worlds continents, islands etc.?

Tesla Autopilot
Tesla Autopilot System | Image by therealstrategy.com

In a June 30, 2016 article in The Verge.com written by Jordan Golson he tells the story of the first fatal crash involving a man driving a Tesla Model S with the Autopilot system activated. The man was driving on a divided highway and neither he nor the Autopilot saw an 18-wheeler crossing that highway perpendicular to and ahead of his car’s path. In this case apparently the sun was shinning just above the roof of the truck and the automated system could have thought it was an overpass that the car could easily drive under.

Whether you call them driverless cars, self-driving cars or robotic cars, Autonomous cars use various techniques to detect their surroundings including radar, lidar, GPS, odometry and computer vision. Do we know if other continents are drifting and if so by how much? The small differences could have very large consequences especially when people’s lives hang in the balance. It looks like all of the GPS systems in use around the world should be updated frequently to to keep up with any continental movement that is discovered.

Google Self-Driving Car
Google Self-Driving Car | image by youtube.com

There have been other documented vehicle and pedestrian accidents and most have been attributed to GPS, but most of those incidents relate to the drivers not paying attention to their surroundings and blindly taking the GPS map directions.The website Ranker has a list and description of 9 accidents that were caused by Google Maps or GPS. You might want to check it out.

It doesn’t look like we are quite ready to depend on technology to do everything for us without having our attention on what we are doing and where we are going. For safety’s sake we’d all be advised to keep alert while driving or walking and depending on any sort of technology to find a location and the best and safest route to get to our destination. Whether  or not continental shift can directly cause problems for GPS systems, particularly in vehicles, may not have been determined as of yet, but I believe it is a subject well worth examining.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].

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