This week has seen the 40th anniversary of the first successful reception of a Global Positioning System (GPS) signal from the world's first GPS satellite, NTS-2.
Reception of that signal heralded the advent of a technology which has transformed the global economy – including every aspect of the aviation and aerospace industries – in various fundamental ways.
In the small hours of 19 July 1977, Rockwell Collins engineer David Van Dusseldorp sat on the roof of one of the company's building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, adjusting an antenna every five minutes to try to receive a GPS signal from the NTS-2 satellite.
Shortly after Van Dusseldorp started adjusting the antenna, the satellite was turned on and it received the first GPS signal, which then was successfully decoded by the team working at the GPS receiver in a room below.
That original GPS receiver was six feet in height and had two seats where engineers sat monitoring and adjusting its signal input.
Soon after Rockwell Collins had successfully received the first GPS signal, the U.S. Air Force awarded the company the Navstar GPS user equipment contract.
Since then, Rockwell Collins has continued to pioneer advancements in GPS. For instance, in 1983 it was the first company to complete a transatlantic flight using GPS navigation.
In 1994, Rockwell Collins first outfitted the US armed forces with a secure, military-grade Precision Lightweight GPS Receiver to give US soldiers a tactical navigational advantage on the battlefield.
Then, in 2014, Rockwell Collins achieved another milestone in navigation technology by successfully developing a prototype to track a satellite in the Galileo Global Navigation Satellite System created by the European Union to provide global position-signal coverage for its nations.
Where in 1977 Rockwell Collins' first GPS receiver was six feet high, today the company's GPS-4000S receiver – which can process the transmissions from up to 10 GPS satellites and two Space Based Augmentation Systems (SBAS) geostationary satellites simultaneously – is only 7.87 inches tall.
Even smaller is Rockwell Collins' Micro GPS Receiver Application Module (MicroGRAM), which is only one inch tall. This receiver can use data from up to 12 GPS satellites and the company claims the MicroGRAM consumes the least power of any receiver in its class.
Now GPS receivers are incorporated into every mobile phone throughout the world, letting cellular telecommunications providers direct voice calls and text messages immediately to every one of their subscribers, no matter where each subscriber might be in a given telecoms provider's network area.
GPS receivers installed in every tablet computer, every laptop and every mobile phone globally allow Internet companies such as Google to locate each device user to within a few feet and help him or her find nearby cultural, shopping, dining and other tourism and entertainment options, anywhere in the world.
Most new-production cars have miniature GPS-based road navigation units installed, making point-to-point ground navigation simple for countless millions of drivers.
Four-dimensional GPS navigation is one of the most powerful and accurate navigation technologies available to commercial and military aircraft, as well as to ships.
GPS-derived aircraft position is now a fundamental tool for air traffic surveillance by air navigation service providers. It also allows aircraft to follow very precise, curving airport approach and departure paths, saving fuel, reducing community exposure to aircraft noise and letting aircraft land and take off in weather conditions which previously would have precluded operations.
Beyond those important navigational uses, miniature GPS receivers, which can be interrogated using RFID technology, are beginning to transform various areas of the logistics business.
They do so by allowing individual high-value items of cargo – such as aircraft components and parts requiring urgent delivery to resolve an AOG emergency – to be identified conclusively and tracked accurately at every stage of their journey.
Any organization or company that needs to track a large fleet of vehicles constantly – such as an ambulance operator, a road haulage contractor, a construction company, a drone operator, or a parcel delivery service – can do so by installing GPS transceivers on each vehicle in its fleet.
GPS has truly come of age four decades on from Rockwell Collins' successful reception of the first signal.