In the last 10 years, the Global Positioning System (GPS) has gone from a highly sensitive government asset to a tool that businesses can use in many innovative ways. As GPS receivers continue to get smaller and require less power, manufacturers are finding ways to mount them in any device that moves or needs to be tracked—everything from cell phones to vehicles to heavy construction equipment. When you combine the power of a GPS receiver with the ubiquity of wireless communications, you get an almost unlimited ability to track anything from anywhere. Let’s look at the history of the GPS and how it enables businesses to conceive and deploy new tracking applications.

How the GPS was born
In 1973, the Department of Defense (DOD) began investigating the use of satellites to solve its need for a foolproof method of navigation. During a brainstorming session at the Pentagon, several of the DOD’s top scientists conceived a system of 24 Navstar satellites built by Rockwell International that would transmit their precise locations back to ground receivers. Each satellite is the size of a large automobile and weighs 1,900 pounds. The satellites were deployed so that at least four satellites are always in touch with every point on the planet during their 12-hour orbits. By 1993, all 24 satellites had been launched and the system was fully operational.

Although the technology is very complex, the principles behind the GPS are very simple. As it orbits the earth, every satellite continuously broadcasts its position and time within one billionth of a second. From any point on earth, a GPS receiver synchronizes with four satellites and triangulates its position. The position is given in latitude, longitude, and altitude and can easily be translated into a position on a map using simple mapping software.

Why now?
If the GPS system has been operational since 1993, why has it taken so long for businesses to take advantage of it? The GPS is a military device, deployed and maintained by the DOD (at a cost of $12 billion) for military use. Since it transmits signals from digital radios that anyone can intercept, our enemies, smugglers, and terrorists could use the GPS system. Nonetheless, the companies that built the equipment saw an enormous potential market for it. They pressured the Pentagon to make the GPS available for commercial use.

To minimize the potential for abuse, the Pentagon instituted a dual-broadcasting system by which it would transmit encrypted, accurate signals for military use, but transmit less-accurate (to within 100 feet) signals that commercial receivers could process. It also reserved the right to transmit inaccurate signals into the commercial stream on an ad hoc basis to make them less palatable to military or noncommercial users.

In 1996, the White House decided that within 10 years it would provide the military’s unencrypted signal to everyone and discontinue the practice of introducing errors into the commercial signal. With this announcement, the government made a commitment to provide GPS services free of charge on a worldwide basis.

Commercial GPS use
Guaranteeing the accuracy of the GPS signals lifted the cloud of uncertainty over the viability of commercial applications based on GPS technology. The first mainstream commercial use of the technology has been in the trucking industry. Thousands of trucks carry billions of dollars’ worth of inventory on the nation’s highways every day. With a GPS receiver installed, a truck can collect its location information and then retransmit the information to a central location using an integrated cellular telephone. As the cost and size of the receivers continue to drop, they have become more viable for smaller trucking operations.

I recently worked with a company that had 80 trucks handling local deliveries from a distributed warehouse system across the state in which the company was located. By placing tracking devices with integrated GPS capability inside each truck, the company realized a six-month payback on the technology. The GPS devices allowed it to analyze and optimize delivery routes, resulting in a savings of over 100 labor hours per week. And it was able to dramatically reduce its insurance rates by demonstrating the ability to track the speed and location of every truck. The insurance company recognized that its risks of accidents and theft were reduced significantly because drivers knew their speeds were being recorded and that truck locations were available to the company at all times.

Applications for GPS technology aren’t limited to the transportation industry. Many new cell phones ship with GPS locators as part of the new e911 initiative. Innovative companies are using these capabilities to provide “service locator” products. For example, you can navigate to a site advertising a movie and then click Show Me The Nearest Theater. The phone will send up its GPS calculated coordinates, and the site can return a map showing the closest theater. Almost every company can find a use for location services whether for employees, customers, or hard assets.

The big issue: Privacy
Businesses have always had to deal with the issue of personal use of business assets—first the telephone, then the copier, and then the PC. Now it’s the leased automobile, the company van, or even the company-paid cell phone. Does a company have the right to track its employee’s location during business hours if the employee is using a company-owned cell phone? A court in Virginia has already decided that a company providing commercial services must provide notification before using GPS services. In one case, a rental car company installed GPS devices in its cars. When a renter returned a car, he saw an “excessive speeding” charge on his bill. The company had used the GPS device to track the renter’s driving speed. The charge was thrown out in court because the company had failed to reasonably notify renters that they were being tracked and could face additional charges for misuse of the vehicle.

Even though industry needs to work through these privacy issues, GPS technology for business applications is ready for prime time. You should have someone in your organization looking into potential uses of GPS technology to reduce costs or add customer services. The cost of receivers and the availability of software and utilities to process the GPS information have reached a price point that makes it very affordable for widespread deployment.