What Is GPS & How It Works? Everything You Need To Know

What Is GPS & How It Works? Everything You Need To Know

Have you heard of the Global Positioning System or GPS? It's a robust tool that uses a network of satellites to help us navigate and track time, speed, and location - all over the world! You can find GPS capabilities in watches, smartphones, and cars.

It's super helpful for getting from one place to another. Did you know that GPS was initially created by the US Department of Defense for military use in 1973? However, now it's free and available for everyone to use. It's great for all sorts of activities, like hiking, fishing, and running, and it's also a perfect tool for business and science for things like precise surveying, earthquake research, weather forecasting, and climate analysis. Plus, it's weather-resistant and works globally!

Learn how GPS works and the technology behind it in this comprehensive guide from GPSTracker247. Understand the signal transmission, satellite network, and more.

What is GPS?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System is a network of satellites that work together to determine the location, speed, and time of any GPS-enabled device. These devices can include your smartphone, smartwatch, or even your car. With GPS, you can easily navigate from one place to another, and it's super helpful when you're exploring new areas or trying to find your way back home.

How GPS works

GPS works on a sophisticated combination of mathematics, physics, and engineering principles. The three parts that operate the GPS are:

The GPS Satellites (space segment)

The GPS satellites transmit signals from orbit, allowing the system to determine the user's time and position, thus forming the space segment. 'Constellation' is the term used to describe the entire group of satellites. NAVSTAR and GLONASS are two GPS constellations.

A satellite has three main components: 

  1. Computer: The internal computer manages various operations, including flight. 
  2. Atomic clock: It maintains time accuracy of up to three nanoseconds or about three billionths of a second. 
  3. Radio transmitter: It broadcasts signals to the planet.

Ground Stations Operated by the US Military (control segment): 

Ground stations relay GPS signals from satellites to GPS receivers and are crucial for tracking satellite orbits. They comprise a receiver, antenna, and communication tools to deliver data to the data center. The receiver analyzes signals picked up by the antenna from GPS satellites, isolating them based on satellite, frequency, and time.

Receivers (user segment):

The GPS receiver receives signals from satellites to pinpoint the location and guide pre-programmed paths, and anyone with a GPS receiver can locate themselves using satellite signals.

How does GPS Signal Transmission Work?

GPS satellites generate signals using highly accurate atomic clocks that are synchronized with one another and with ground control stations. After generation, signals are modulated with navigational information, including satellite ephemerides (orbital data), almanacs (satellite status data), and timing data, to ensure accuracy. 

How GPS works

Let us take a look at this process in detail:

  1. Signal generation: GPS satellites use highly accurate atomic clocks to produce their signals. For precise timekeeping, these clocks are synced with one another and with ground control stations. Radio waves work as signals at a particular frequency.
  2. Signal Modulation: Signals are modulated with navigational information after being generated. Information from satellite ephemerides (orbital data), almanacs (satellite status data), and timing data are all included in navigation data. To guarantee accuracy, this data is updated continuously.
  3. Signal amplification: As the satellites are distant in space and the signals must be powerful enough to reach GPS, the modulated signals are amplified to boost their strength.
  4. Signal Transmission: The GPS satellites send enhanced signals toward the Earth in all directions. The signals from a GPS satellite in orbit travel at the speed of light, or roughly 299,792 km/s, and arrive at the Earth's surface in about 65 milliseconds.

GPS signals are transmitted through two frequency bands:

  1. L-band: GPS signals L1 and L2 are broadcast in the L-band, which ranges between 1 and 2 GHz. L-band signals benefit outdoor usage since they can pass through trees and clouds. They are vulnerable to signal degradation due to weather and radio interference.
  2. S-band: The L5 signal is broadcast in the S-band, which ranges from 2 to 4 GHz. S-band signals have a shorter wavelength and higher frequency than L-band, making them more prone to signal loss from obstructions and atmospheric conditions. However, S-band signals are less susceptible to radio interference.

GPS satellites use atomic clocks to transmit signals with navigational information at specific frequencies. A GPS receiver consists of an antenna, RF front end, local oscillator, and navigation processor. The antenna receives RHCP signals from GPS satellites and must have a high gain pattern to perform effectively at different frequencies, polarizations, and elevation angles.

After the antenna, the preamplifier is another active component that boosts signals and is often housed with the antenna. You can go for one preamplifier per band. However, a single preamplifier can cover multiple bands.

The preamplifier's primary job is to boost the signal from the antenna. Preamplifiers typically include three parts:

  • A preselector filter that eliminates out-of-band interference and restricts noise bandwidth,
  • burnout protection that shields the receiver's electrical components from potential high-power interference, and
  • a low-noise amplifier (LNA).

An LNA amplifies the signals by 20 to 35 dB to strengthen them because GPS transmissions usually are relatively weak. The RF front-end filters and down-converts the signal to make it easier to process. This process requires multiple stages due to the difficulty of creating a stable band-pass filter with a high central frequency.

The analog signal is then converted to a digital signal. The receiver uses a single local reference oscillator, although some receivers have multiple frequency references for down-conversion. The oscillator's size, power consumption, stability, temperature, and vibration sensitivity are critical to the receiver's performance.

What are GPS Positioning Principles?

GPS positioning is based on two fundamental concepts. The first concept is trilateration, which means positioning from three different locations. A global positioning system (GPS) device uses satellite information to find that particular location on Earth. Trilateration calculates a position by knowing how far you are from three or more known areas or satellites. A GPS receiver uses radio signals to trilaterate or measure the distances between satellites.

Triangulation, the second concept, is a correlation between time spent traveling, rate (speed), and distance traveled, or: 

Distance = Time x Rate

Triangulation relies on timing variations in receiving tag signals, whereas trilateration uses signal strength as an analog for distance. The transmission times differ by minimal amounts of time since these signals move at the speed of light.

What are Some Sources of GPS Errors?

GPS receivers are subject to internal and external errors, including local oscillators, antennas, microprocessors, atmospheric effects, and interference.

These are the leading causes of GPS positional error:

  • Ephemeris errors: Ephemeris orbital errors happen when a satellite incorrectly transmits its precise orbital position.
  • Atmospheric errors: Atmospheric variations affect GPS signal speed and accuracy, especially when satellites are closer to the horizon. Correcting these errors is challenging. Using both frequency bands can help minimize these inaccuracies.
  • Satellite Clock Errors: GPS readings are affected by satellite clock errors despite the use of accurate atomic clocks. These errors can be corrected by including the correction in the navigation message and differentiating between receivers.

To combat errors and provide precise position information, the governmental and private sectors have created various augmentation systems. Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) is sometimes called differential GPS (DGPS). Any technology that assists GPS by improving positioning, navigation, and timing while not being a fundamental component of GPS itself is called a GPS augmentation.

GPS alone does not meet the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)'s navigation standards for accuracy, integrity, and availability. The WAAS program is being developed by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the FAA. In addition to correcting for timing, satellite orbit, and ionospheric disturbance-related GPS signal problems, WAAS also provides critical integrity data about the condition of each GPS satellite.

What are the Popular GPS Applications?

  • Location - Choosing a position based on location.
  • Tracking - observing the movement of something or someone.
  • Navigation - Using a GPS, Get from one place to another through navigation.
  • Timing - Using a GPS to determine time accurately.
  • Mapping - GPS Creating globe maps is known as mapping.

GPS is also employed by the military, farmers, surveyors, aviation, and marine industry, to mention a few. Highly sophisticated GPS receivers may provide accurate positions up to a centimeter. With many distinct jobs requiring highly proper positioning, these receivers have revolutionized several sectors. 

How GPS works

The sections below briefly summarize how GPS usage in several industries: 

Aviation: Nearly every modern aircraft has numerous GPS receivers installed. It gives pilots and anyone tracking the path a map and real-time aircraft position of the status of each flight. Additionally, GPS enables airline operators to choose in advance the safest, quickest, and most fuel-efficient routes to each destination.

Marine: By installing high-precision GPS on boats and ships, captains can navigate through uncharted harbors, shipping channels, and waterways without encountering recognizable obstructions. Furthermore, GPS facilitates position and map dredging operations in rivers and piers, enabling other vessels to know precisely where the water is deep enough to operate.

Entertainment: GPS can integrate with location-based games like Pokémon Go and Zombies, Run. Zombies, Run! is an "exergame" that, as the name suggests, offers a mission and reward structure to encourage jogging.

Health and fitness:  Wearable technology and smartwatches incorporate GPS technology to track.

Transportation: Logistics organizations implement telematics systems to increase driver productivity and safety. Route optimization, fuel efficiency, driver safety, and compliance can all be aided by a truck tracker.GPS helps businesses maximize the return on their investments by locating equipment, assessing asset allocation, and improving asset allocation for trucking and construction vehicles. Logistics organizations use telematics systems to increase driver productivity and safety.

Agriculture: GPS receivers on agricultural equipment allow farmers to map their plantations and sow seeds accurately in the same locations. This technique uses GPS position instead of visual references, making it useful for low-visibility situations like darkness. Farmers can identify where the soil is most fruitful across individual fields or even entire farms thanks to using high-accuracy GPS to map the soil sample locations! 

Use of GPS Technology for Personal Tracking Needs

GPS technology has revolutionized personal tracking by providing an efficient and accurate method of locating people and things. With GPS-enabled devices such as smartphones, smartwatches, and tracking devices, individuals can track their movements and the movements of their loved ones and assets in real time. It has become especially important for parents who want to keep an eye on their children's whereabouts or for caregivers of individuals with dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

GPS portable tracking has also become increasingly popular among outdoor enthusiasts, such as hikers and mountain climbers, who use this tech to navigate unfamiliar terrain and keep themselves safe. Additionally, athletes use these trackers to monitor their performance during training and competitions.

However, with the rise of personal tracking devices comes concerns about privacy and security. It is crucial to ensure that personal data and location information are only accessible to authorized individuals and that GPS tracking is used ethically and responsibly. Despite these concerns, personal tracking devices have become indispensable in our modern world.

Advanced GPS Technologies

More precise positioning is a requirement for many applications than GPS positioning alone can offer. Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) technology offers centimeter-level positional accuracy.

Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) and Precise Point Positioning (PPP) are currently the latest for many frequency high-end receivers in agriculture, geodesy, and other applications needing centimeter-level accuracy. Wide front-end bandwidths, fast sampling rates, reliable local oscillators, and algorithms for choosing measurements are all features of multi-frequency high-end receivers.

Real-Time Kinematic (RTK), a very accurate method, uses the signal from satellite-based positioning systems like GPS, Galileo, BeiDou, and GLONASS to pinpoint a receiver's location. The carrier phase measurement technique, on which RTK is based, uses the carrier signal's phase to identify the receiver's location.

Conventional GPS receivers in smartphones and wearable technology use the timing of signals from multiple satellites to determine position with an accuracy range of 1-4 meters. However, RTK receivers are more accurate and not affected by weather, providing centimeter-level accuracy. PPP uses advanced modeling techniques and correction products to achieve similar levels of accuracy without the need for local reference stations, making it practical in areas where RTK is not feasible.

GPS Limitations and Challenges

The GPS receiver's position accuracy might suffer from various potential flaws. The following sources can weaken the GPS signal and thus impair accuracy:

Signal multipath error: Multipath effects happen when satellite-transmitted signals hit a reflecting surface before reaching the receiver's antenna. When this occurs, the receiver receives the motion along a straight and delayed path (many pathways). The result resembles a double or ghost image on a television.

Signal blockage: GPS can face reception difficulties if the sky is partly blocked, such as in urban areas, parking garages, and mountainous regions. Changes in satellite positions or blockages by trees can also lead to weaker signals. Relocating to a more open area may improve signal reception.

GPS Jamming: Initially developed for military use, jammers can shield a vehicle's location, giving the military privacy, enhanced protection, and an advantage in high-risk situations. However, criminals and some speeding citizens may use jamming devices to evade authorities, steal vehicles, or conceal their travel plans from employers. Jammers work by broadcasting signals at the same frequency as GPS devices, masking the user's location and preventing it from determining its location.

GPS Spoofing: GPS spoofing is manipulating GPS signals to persuade a device to transmit misleading data. The fact that the GPS signal is unencrypted is one of the reasons it is simple to spoof. Anyone can fake their location using the publicly available specs since no authentication or verification is necessary for GPS transmissions.

The Science and Technology Directorate's (S&T) Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Program has a multi-pronged approach to addressing GPS vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure. It conducts vulnerability and impact assessments, develops mitigations, investigates complementary timing technologies, and engages with the industry through outreach events and meetings. Through these persistent and continuous efforts, the program aims to strengthen critical infrastructure's future resilience to GPS vulnerabilities.


GPS III is the latest version of GPS satellites developed by Lockheed Martin, launched in January 2023. It provides three times more accuracy and up to eight times more anti-jamming capability, enabling more precise placements, global interoperability, and stronger signals for military users. GPS III has a design life of 15 years, which is twice as long as the current GPS satellites, and launching two satellites together helps reduce costs. With improved accuracy, security, and connectivity, GPS III supports nearly every aspect of modern life and benefits billions of users.

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