The StreetPilot II, a GPS receiver with built-in maps for drivers

Photo courtesy Garmin

Differential GPS

So far, we've learned how a GPS receiver calculates its position on earth based on the information it receives from four located satellites. This system works pretty well, but inaccuracies do pop up. For one thing, this method assumes the radio signals will make their way through the atmosphere at a consistent speed (the speed of light). In fact, the Earth's atmosphere slows the electromagnetic energy down somewhat, particularly as it goes through the ionosphere and troposphere. The delay varies depending on where you are on Earth, which means it's difficult to accurately factor this into the distance calculations. Problems can also occur when radio signals bounce off large objects, such as skyscrapers, giving a receiver the impression that a satellite is farther away than it actually is. On top of all that, satellites sometimes just send out bad almanac data, misreporting their own position.

Differential GPS (DGPS) helps correct these errors. The basic idea is to gauge GPS inaccuracy at a stationary receiver station with a known location. Since the DGPS hardware at the station already knows its own position, it can easily calculate its receiver's inaccuracy. The station then broadcasts a radio signal to all DGPS-equipped receivers in the area, providing signal correction information for that area. In general, access to this correction information makes DGPS receivers much more accurate than ordinary receivers.

The most essential function of a GPS receiver is to pick up the transmissions of at least four satellites and combine the information in those transmissions with information in an electronic almanac, all in order to figure out the receiver's position on Earth.

Once the receiver makes this calculation, it can tell you the latitude, longitude and altitude (or some similar measurement) of its current position. To make the navigation more user-friendly, most receivers plug this raw data into map files stored in memory.

You can use maps stored in the receiver's memory, connect the receiver to a computer that can hold more detailed maps in its memory, or simply buy a detailed map of your area and find your way using the receiver's latitude and longitude readouts. Some receivers let you download detailed maps into memory or supply detailed maps with plug-in map cartridges.

A standard GPS receiver will not only place you on a map at any particular location, but will also trace your path across a map as you move. If you leave your receiver on, it can stay in constant communication with GPS satellites to see how your location is changing. With this information and its built-in clock, the receiver can give you several pieces of valuable information:

  • How far you've traveled (odometer)
  • How long you've been traveling
  • Your current speed (speedometer)
  • Your average speed
  • A "bread crumb" trail showing you exactly where you have traveled on the map
  • The estimated time of arrival at your destination if you maintain your current speed

For lots more information on GPS receivers and related topics, check out the links on the next page.