29 Jan 2021
Satellite-based positioning is everywhere. A look back at 2020 offers some insights into how it will shape our future.
Cellphones and GPS receivers have more than just a thing or two in common. But one interesting fact they share is, they both entered the mainstream via our vehicles. Remember the briefcase-sized cellphones of the 1990s, clutched between the driver seat and the passenger seat? Now, take a look at your smartphone. Similarly, a decade ago, satellite-based positioning navigation systems were becoming widespread in our cars. Today, they are everywhere: in our pockets, our toys, our smart devices, our infrastructure, and our factories.
Far from fading away, global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technology relentlessly continues to reinvent itself and the myriad applications it enables. A look back at some of last year’s blog posts offers insights into how the technology will transform our lives in the years to come.
They say that practice makes perfect. While perfection is fleeting, there’s clearly value in repetition, as we demonstrated last year. After selling around half a billion GNSS receivers, we released u-blox M10, our tenth GNSS receiver technology platform. Designed primarily for industrial tracking and wearable applications, the platform’s specs indicate where GNSS technology is headed.
First, receivers are becoming more sophisticated. The u-blox M10 offers full GNSS performance, concurrently receiving up to four GNSS constellations, with an update rate up to 10 Hz. In addition to tracking more satellites to improve performance in challenging environments, u-blox M10 offers Super-S technology to enhance performance when signals are weak, be it due to poor antenna placement, RF-interference, or reduced sky view.
At the same time, the receivers are becoming smaller and more power-efficient. u-blox M10 fits onto a four-by-four-millimeter footprint, making it a perfect fit even for small consumer applications. And it delivers full positioning performance, consuming under 15 mW of power, which can be brought down even further with a selection of power-save modes that reduce the position update rate to meet the needs of the application.
One downside of the tremendous success that GNSS technology has had is that it has become a target for bad actors, from amateur thieves to military organizations. GNSS receivers can be jammed, potentially making tracked devices, assets, or vehicles disappear from online dashboards for long enough to hide some form of illicit behavior.
Or they can be spoofed, feeding them fake satellite signals to make them appear to be at one location while, in fact, they are somewhere else completely, allowing anyone from Pokémon Go players to Uber drivers to professional fishermen to bend the rules or sidestep regulation to their own profit.
Following the advances made in increasing positioning accuracy and reducing the time it takes GNSS receivers to establish a position fix, security has become the next frontier in GPS. Security was front and center on our minds in developing u‑blox M9 standard precision and u‑blox F9 high precision positioning platforms. Leveraging advances in GNSS satellite signals, RF-signal processing, embedded software development, and data encryption, u‑blox M9 and F9 tackle GNSS security from the antenna all the way up to the cloud.
Every improvement in the accuracy of GNSS-based positioning has come with improvements in timing accuracy as well. For years, GPS-based timing has been finding its way into more and more industrial verticals, to synchronize cellular base stations, monitor power grids, and even align the clocks in financial high-frequency trading.
The u‑blox F9 GNSS receiver platform, which brought scalable and affordable high precision positioning – down to the decimeter-level – to the mass market, also greatly improved timing accuracies, using a new generation of multi-constellation, multi-band, high accuracy GNSS receivers. As a result, five nanosecond timing accuracy for absolute time – even less for relative time – has become available to industrial applications at a fraction of the cost of wired timing and synchronization solutions.
And adoption will no doubt continue, as more and more market segments discover the potential of GNSS technology to deliver highly synchronized timing – wirelessly.
Walk around any urban center today, and you’ll see vehicles that weren’t there just a few years ago. Enabled by the confluence of societal and technological megatrends, shared e-bikes and e-scooters are some of the most obvious, and ubiquitous, manifestations of the IoT on wheels, combining the convenience of on-demand service with a fine-tuned user experience normally associated with the online world.
GNSS technology is a big part of that picture. Without reliable real-time knowledge on the whereabouts of each individual e-scooter, e-bike, or e-motorcycle in a fleet, today’s platform-based business model in micromobility would simply fall apart. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single provider that doesn’t depend on satellite-based positioning information. As a result, micromobilty has, in just a few years, become a key market for GNSS receiver manufacturers, and lessons learned in the process will shape tomorrow’s solutions in urban mobility and beyond.
Centimeter-level positioning, for instance, will likely gain in importance as means of enforcing speed limits in geofenced areas, keeping rides out of restricted zones, or ensuring that vehicles are only left on designated spots. And as micromobility evolves from being merely a convenient way to get from one place to another to a means of staying fit, high precision positioning could enable superior performance metrics.
And service could be further improved by enhancing GNSS receivers with dead-reckoning solutions that combine inertial sensor measurements with satellite-based position, offering a cost-effective way to handle multipath errors in dense urban settings and even bridge short GNSS outages.
A few years from now, we’re likely to find GNSS technology in all sorts of unexpected places, making life safer, more convenient, or simply, more fun. Using advanced virtual reality technology, holoride, operating out of Munich, Germany, is redefining the passenger experience in motorized transport by immersing them into interactive adventures in which they become the hero of their own journey.
To create such a real-time immersive experience, holoride combines data from several in-vehicle systems, from the accelerometers and gyroscopes that make up a car’s inertial measurement unit to its navigation system, building a virtual world that responds to the vehicle's actual behavior in real-time. And as the car travels towards its destination, its position is continuously tracked by a u‑blox high precision global navigation satellite system (GNSS) receiver.
It’s difficult to know precisely what the future will bring. But if companies today are developing GNSS-based solutions that let you fight off a herd of dinosaurs on the way to school – even just virtually, it’s probably safe to say that satellite-based positioning still has plenty of surprises in store for us!