20 Mar 2018

A hard-to-overlook alternative for centimeter-level positioning accuracy

A hard-to-overlook alternative for centimeter-level positioning accuracy

Drone flying over field

Over the past 15 years, standard precision GPS technology has found its way into countless devices you probably own. Your smartphone, your car navigation system, and your smart watch all use it to tell you where you are to within a few meters. Mostly, that’s been good enough, and for many use cases, higher accuracy would simply not have been affordable. The high cost of centimeter-level positioning technology has limited its use to professional niche applications, from construction and professional surveying to precision agriculture.  

The past years have, however, seen demand for affordable high precision positioning technology become increasingly urgent, particularly in areas like precision agriculture, UAVs, and robotic lawnmowers. But affordability hasn’t been the only issue. Size and power demand of high precision positioning solutions on the market have made them a poor fit for consumer and mass market applications.

In 2016, u-blox took its first steps towards meeting these demands with the release of the NEO-M8P GNSS receiver module

When it came out, the NEO-M8P took the aerial drone industry by storm, quickly becoming an industry favorite by making centimeter-level positioning technology accessible to new applications. In standard use-cases, the NEO-M8P works in pairs. A rover (NEO-M8P-0) receives corrections from the u-blox base receiver (NEO-M8P-2) via a communication link that uses the RTCM protocol to enable centimeter-level relative positioning accuracy. Pre-integrated RTK-algorithms on the module significantly brought down size and weight and contributed to cutting power consumption five-fold compared to commercial solutions that came before it.

New entrants versus established players

At the time, aerial drones were still a young industry with few established players. We released the NEO‑M8P just as demand for this type of technology was growing, which had a huge impact on its success.

But to what extent has the NEO-M8P been able to win over established industries that have long relied on conventional expensive high precision positioning technologies?

Precision agriculture is one such application. Through the use of GNSS-RTK equipped tractors, precision agriculture has long helped farmers reduce waste and costs by using high precision GNSS technology to create equally spaced rows to control the placement of water, fertilizer, and herbicides. When combined with special geo-referenced maps, the technology can be leveraged to limit the distribution of key nutrients to specific areas and avoid other areas where they could negatively affect crop yield.

Despite its potential to increase overall crop growth and productivity, the benefits of precision agriculture had been limited to large-sized farms, where the high initial costs could quickly be recovered.

Growing demand

NEO-M8P promised to change the game. And predictably, we now see manufacturers of precision agriculture, collision avoidance, and professional surveying systems embrace the technology. Low cost, the ease of setting up a local RTK solution, and compatibility with existing commercial GNSS correction data streams have made the technology accessible to smaller players in these areas as well.

But we are particularly excited about new applications that were less easy to predict, such as in the realm of sports. Thanks to the small size of our NEO-M8P module and its low power consumption, companies are integrating it into performance trackers for athletes – and racehorses. When combined with a wealth of data collected on physical performance, accurate position data can help optimize training, taking individual athletes, sports teams, and race horses to a new level.

The level of accuracy achieved by the NEO-M8P as well as its size and weight are also enabling entirely new kinds of applications. California-based Zipline has developed delivery drones that depend on high precision positioning technology to ensure that their often life-saving deliveries to hard-to-reach locations are accurately and reliably carried out. In such critical applications, demonstrating a high degree of control is key to meeting the stringent demands of regulatory authorities.  

u‑blox F9: taking high precision GNSS to the next level

In February, we announced our new multi-band, multi-constellation u‑blox F9 technology platform. Building on the success of the NEO-M8P, u‑blox F9 steps up performance in terms of positioning, robustness, and reliability by tracking a broader variety of satellite signals from a greater number of orbiting GNSS constellations. u‑blox F9 technology will underpin the next wave of our positioning modules targeting mass market industrial and automotive applications, offering out‑of‑the‑box support for various state‑of‑the‑art GNSS correction technologies that bring down positioning accuracy to the centimeter‑level. u‑blox F9 will make high precision positioning technology accessible to mass market applications for the first time.  

We’re excited to support the development of new applications that u‑blox F9 will enable. You can learn more about u‑blox F9 from our press release, our high precision positioning technology page detailing the highlights that u‑blox F9 delivers.

Peter Fairhust

Director Product Line Management, Product Center Positioning

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