by Scott Lewis
November 2, 2011

GPS (Global Positioning System) technology and the application of GPS technology have certainly come a long way in the last five years, but is GPS right for your business?

You first need to decide how GPS fits into your business and how your business can benefit from the investment.

History of GPS

GPS started as a government program in the late 1960s and early 1970s primarily for military navigational purposes originally funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. GPS technology grew as the military applications started to show the enormous potential of GPS technology. President Ronald Reagan thought the technology was so important that he promised the technology would be available to the general public for free.

The general public became aware of the potential of this technology during the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s. We all were amazed at the application of the GPS technology as the military displayed the amazing accuracy of SMART weapons and how our military used GPS technology for tracking troop movements and monitoring movements of heavy infantry troops.

Following the Persian Gulf War, the general public wanted to take advantage of GPS technology. The automotive industry was the first to respond by making GPS navigation an option on some higher end models by the late 1990s. Now GPS navigation systems in cars are almost standard equipment.

GPS technology has now made its way into our daily lives—our cell phones have personal navigation systems built in and Navistar can track and report the status of our vehicle if we've been in a serious accident.

How Does GPS Work?

GPS is a satellite-based navigation system that engages a network of twenty-four to twenty-seven satellites orbiting the earth to provide triangulation and accurate navigational signals. A land-based antenna, or receiver, can track the information provided by the satellites to compute the receiver’s position accurately.

Even with vast improvements in GPS technology, most land-based receivers still require an unobstructed view of the sky. Therefore, the technology's accuracy is lessened when the sky is obstructed by tall buildings or other obstructions.

Most people think that the technology works because the satellites know the location of the land-based receivers. In reality, the land-based GPS receiver knows where the satellites are and uses the signal from four satellites to triangulate its position. The accuracy of GPS depends on the receiver. Most handheld units, such as cell phone GPS systems, typically have an accuracy of 20 to 30 feet. Higher-end GPS receivers such as automotive GPS systems can have a much higher level of accuracy, up to 5 to 10 feet. 

Due to the accuracy of GPS technology, along with improvements in GPS technology applications, we are starting to see industries such as automotive, light air, marine navigation, surveying, mapping, environmental research, and now construction applications.

How is GPS Technology Impacting Construction?

Traditional GPS technology was capable of telling you where you were within a geographical area. However, that is not enough. We now need elevation or Electronic Distance Measurement technology. Electronic distance measurement technology actually compensates for the exact distance between the satellites and the ground at a given location. With the combination of location-based technology and electronic distance measurement technology, we can calculate distance and elevation of a geographical area.

Let's look at a highway project. We are faced with a wide range of obstacles such as changing terrains that need to be cut or filled, areas that need culverts or bridges, along with other natural obstacles such as rivers and streams. With GPS technology, instead of the painstaking practice of stakes, tapes and transits, we can use a land-based receiver to simply move through the terrains and map the area using GPS technology.

Heavy equipment manufacturers and several third parties have now developed systems that have automatic or manual operator controls in heavy equipment for GPS technology. Three major suppliers of earth-moving GPS technology are Geosystems, Leica and Trimble. This is GPS technology that can operate in 3-dimensional (3-D) mode. Three-D GPS systems allow design surveys to be transmitted directly to the equipment operator console on the jobsite. The 3-D GPS technology allows the equipment operator to operate the equipment in manual or automatic mode. Automatic mode allows the GPS system to take control of the equipments hydraulic systems and automatically adjust itself for height and angle of the blades based on the GPS survey information collected.

If you are a heavy highway contractor, your business needs this GPS-based technology. With GPS technology, you can survey the geographical area while increasing the accuracy and speed of the survey information. You can now take that survey information and transmit that to the equipment operators who can effectively and efficiently operate the equipment to maximize investment.

Practical Use of GPS Technology

We have looked at how GPS can help a heavy highway contractor become more efficient by using GPS and 3-D GPS to survey a geographical area and how that information can be transmitted to the equipment operators to make the grading operations more effective. But, how is GPS technology going to affect the rest of us?

Some practical uses of GPS are:

  • Getting to meetings in unfamiliar locations—We all have been in a hurry to get to a meeting and run out of our office without our Yahoo map printouts.  GPS is now a common option on some vehicles, but there are also GPS navigation systems that can be purchased that range from $300 to $1,500 dollars based on the individual options per unit. These units are easy to use and have been proven to be very accurate. Higher-end GPS units also have the ability to navigate around problem areas, such as construction zones and traffic congestion while providing alternate routes to desired locations.
  • Efficient delivery of products and materials—There are real time vehicle tracking systems that allow companies to track the location of company vehicles from a central location. These systems also allow the central dispatchers to track movements on a visual mapping system in the central office. With this information, and the GPS navigation system in the truck, the central dispatcher could determine the actual location of the truck and guide the driver to the proper location. GPS locator tags can also be placed on materials to track the actual location of materials, as well as provide inventory controls and usage of materials.
  • Equipment maintenance—GPS technology can also be used to track the location of fixed equipment to assist in the management of a proper maintenance schedule. If your organization does routine maintenance of heavy equipment or vehicle fleets you can use GPS technology to help manage the rotation of equipment and hour usage of each piece of equipment.

 

GPS Technology Factors

When you are considering using GPS in your business, take into account the following:

  • Budget—There are all levels of GPS technology, and it is important that you know how you are going to use it before making the purchase. The price  is going to depend on the features of the products you are considering. The technology is pretty much all the same, but the features from product to product are going to vary, so get the products with the features you need in order to meet your needs.
  • GPS Receiver—What kind of receiver do you need? Do you want to be able to move it from vehicle-to-vehicle or is a fixed receiver more appropriate for your application? Is this for a marine application? If so, something that is waterproof could be important. Some models of cell phones have personal GPS systems and some models of Blackberries or Nextel’s have personal GPS systems. These handheld personal navigation systems are going to be less accurate and limited on features. However, if all you need is basic navigation, these might fit the bill, and they are cost-effective.
  • Environment—Where is the receiver going to be located? Is it in a dirty or harsh environment? Is waterproof important? It might be a good investment to purchase GPS equipment with a higher level of durability rating based on the physical environment that the equipment is going to be used.
  • Battery Requirements—What is the lifespan of the batteries? What is the availability of new batteries? And can they be changed in the field or do you have to go to a dealer?
  • Size and Weight of Equipment—This is always one that people forget about. If you get equipment that is too big or heavy for people to carry around they will not utilize the equipment and you are wasting your money.

GPS systems certainly are becoming more and more prevalent in their application within construction with daily advancements in the technology—for example, the development of a new product for mapping out roofs for roofing companies and the creation of a steel placement GPS system to make sure that steel structures are in the right position. GPS is an increasingly influential product, both in our personal and business lives, and new products will continue to be developed and fine-tuned to help us do our work faster and more efficiently.

Construction Business Owner, May 2007