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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Increasing the quality of life on earth with GPS

GPS has ventured beyond driving directions to improve agriculture, protect endangered species and vulnerable communities in society  

As with everything else in life, technology too has its pros and cons. And one of the sharpest visible drawbacks is the intrusion into the lives of private citizens. As American journalist Susan Orlean puts it, “You could go crazy thinking of how unprivate our lives really are – the omnipresent security cameras, the tracking data on our very smart phones, the porous state of our Internet selves, the trail of electronic crumbs we leave every day.”

Yet, even as technology overtakes the privacy of our lives, there is a lot to be thankful for. And one such treasure is the Global Positioning System or GPS as popularly known, which has become an indispensable component of daily life. People across the globe use GPS to prevent themselves from getting lost. Many have replaced the printed copy of a map for the GPS on their smartphones. At least 74% of smartphone users in the US today use the GPS to track their whereabouts, and the smooth female tone giving driving directions is a familiar accompaniment to road trips today. Extending this concept are also apps that provide the service of a company mileage reimbursement tracker, preventing companies losing money on car allowance, fuel cards, or over reimbursement. 

Referring to current trends, American engineer and inventor, Dr Bradford Parkinson, (described as the Father of GPS), said, “Most people don’t pull out maps anymore, they pull out smartphones, and then tend to blame GPS if the directions are wrong.” Dr Parkinson is considered the main person responsible for the creation and successful implementation of GPS and was awarded the 2016 Marconi Prize for his contribution. However, he was also aided by earlier inventors Dr. Roger L. Easton and Dr. Ivan Getting in making this remarkable invention available to the world.

The GPS was originally employed for military purposes. Subsequently, President Ronald Reagan decided to extend it for civilian use, and launched the first Block II satellite in February 1989, as GPS entry into civilian daily life.  

Today, the uses of GPS go far beyond providing travel directions. It is used in areas such as farming, animal tracking and gaming too.

Farmers rely on GPS to help keep food prices down and food production up. To this end, GPS technology guides the farmers’ tractors, provides accurate data for planting and harvesting, guides soil treatment and correct irrigation for different kinds of crops.

GPS is a boon to track endangered species in the world, too. In Asia and Africa, wildlife conservationists rely on the steady pings from satellites to inform them of the exact location of protected wildlife. Around 150 elephants and about 50 human beings are killed every year in the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka. Currently authorities are using GPS real-time tracking collars to track elephants in an effort to keep elephants and humans safe. Kenya too is using similar technology to protect its wildlife. An app named Domain Awareness System (DAS) alerts of potential problems if an elephant bolts or if human intruders are in the vicinity. The app also picks up other vital information such as positions of rangers in the area, also vehicles and aircraft, gunshots and camera trap feeds, arrests and crime scene information, and weather details.

Similarly, GPS can track and allow for protection of the world’s vulnerable communities – the very young and the very old.

As a strategic step into the future, the US government enables educators in schools to teach their students about the advantages and future potential  of GPS tracking. One method is the government providing lesson plans which highlight scientific learning standards. The government also offers a free poster highlighting the basics of how GPS tracking technology works, as a visual aid to educators, which makes for more effective classroom teaching. As expected, students are filled with wonder to learn the capabilities of GPS.

As British science fiction writer, the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke, said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is equivalent to magic.”


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