Many of us rely on GPS (Global Positioning System) to calculate travel times, find our way to new places, avoid traffic jams, keep an eye on the kids and generally avoid getting lost.
But it’s not always the most reliable of systems, especially in populated areas where it’s difficult to get a line of sight to and from a satellite.
Now researchers have come up with a new and improved technology that could eventually replace GPS in some scenarios. Called SuperGPS, it’s accurate to within 10 centimeters (or 3.9 inches) and doesn’t rely on satellite navigation systems.
The new approach uses networks similar to cellular networks, but instead of streaming data to our phones, the network receives an accurate fix to the device.
A combination of radio transmitters and fiber optic networks form the basis of the system, with some clever tweaks on top.
“We realized that with a few cutting-edge innovations, the telecommunications network could be turned into a very accurate alternative positioning system that is independent of GPS,” says physicist Jeroen Koelemeij from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
“We have successfully achieved and developed a system that can provide connectivity just like existing cellular and Wi-Fi networks do, as well as precise positioning and timing like GPS.”
In a test area with six radio transmitters, the researchers were able to show their system in action over an area of 660 square meters (7,104 square feet). The timings of the transmitted radio signals can be measured and interpreted in a rangefinder, which then reveals the location of the individual devices.
One of the key elements of the new network positioning system is a synchronized atomic clock: perfect timing means more accurate positioning. Essentially, fiber optic cables act as connectors that keep everything synchronized and accurate to the billionth of a second.
The system also deploys a radio signal bandwidth that is much larger than normal – even though radio spectrum bandwidth is expensive due to its scarcity, the team used many small bandwidth signals combined to form a larger virtual bandwidth for the network communication.
This additional bandwidth overcomes one of the biggest problems with standard GPS, which is that radio signals are reflected off buildings and can quickly become confused.
“This can make GPS unreliable in urban conditions, for example, which is a problem if we want to use automated vehicles,” says electrical engineer Christiaan Tiberius, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
In addition to automated vehicles, the new system could be useful in designing quantum communication networks and next-generation networks for mobile devices, according to the researchers who developed it.
While Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) including GPS certainly have their uses and will continue to do so for a long time to come, experts are constantly looking for ways to improve and enhance it.
More testing will be required to establish it as a genuine alternative to GPS. The proposed network-based system will also take time to establish, despite the fact that its transmission protocols and hardware are already in use. According to the researchers, today’s cellular and Wi-Fi networks could be adapted for this task.
“This work provides a glimpse into a future in which telecommunications networks provide not only connectivity but also GNSS-independent timing and positioning services with unprecedented accuracy and reliability,” the researchers say in their published paper.
The research has been published in Nature.