GPS Comes to Campus

The Global Positioning System (GPS) that has now become so commonplace began with the launch of the system’s first navigational satellite in 1978. Since that time, a number of satellites have been deployed and subsequently replaced by newer models, resulting in a constellation of roughly 25 to 30 units orbiting the earth at 11,000 miles at any given time. GPS was originally developed for the military, but has since become widely used for civilian purposes. Today, GPS has proliferated into numerous areas, including many applications at colleges and universities.

How It Works
GPS works through an extension of triangulation, in which fixed navigational markers can be used to calculate a known location in space. A GPS receiver acquires the signals of a number of the orbiting satellites and then computes and displays its location, often to within several feet. When integrated with digital maps such as roads and streets in car units, the GPS provides directions to destinations. GPS has been incorporated into a broad array of devices, and today is integral to nearly all cell phones. The term usually applied to the spatial positioning capability GPS-enables is “location aware.”

GPS is clearly a convenience and timesaver for drivers. But the system has also revolutionized other forms of travel, including aviation and marine navigation. As an avid mariner, I use GPS extensively to navigate the waters of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, often called the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Through this system, invisible channels are revealed for safe passage and forewarning is given for underwater obstacles.

The military uses GPS extensively for sea, air, and ground operations. Police, fire, and emergency medical services rely on it as well. GPS is also used in precision agriculture for crop planting and harvesting, oceanographic mapping and deep-sea drilling, underground mining, and numerous other operations. The English Channel tunnel from England to France was continuously GPS-directed during construction originating from both locations, to a precision midpoint intersection upon completion.

Research and Development
Research and development labs at a number of leading universities such as Stanford, Ohio State, and the University of Texas at Austin continue work to enhance GPS system capabilities. The University of Missouri has been very involved in the development of precision agriculture systems. Ohio University operates the Avionics Engineering Center specializing in the research, development, and evaluation of electronic navigation systems. A number of other schools are developing highly innovative GPS applications for use on campus.

Montclair State University in New Jersey developed their Campus Connect system that utilized GPS-enabled cell phones to enhance mobile learning, safety, communication, and campus navigation. This system has been widely publicized for its success. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo developed the GPS Ranger system to support student admissions efforts. The GPS Ranger enables prospective students to tour the campus through a GPS-enabled multimedia guide device. Cal Poly students developed and manage the content of the system themselves, and also participate in personal tours if desired. The system is very impressive for prospective students and demonstrates the institution’s learn-by-doing philosophy.

Campus Mapping and Safety Applications
GPS is increasingly used in campus-mapping projects in physical plant operations, in a process usually known as digital photogrammetry. GPS-enabled photomapping systems have become very popular, as demonstrated by systems such as Google Earth. Campuses in the Indiana University system have developed comprehensive online maps of their buildings and facilities to support facilities management and campus master planning. UT Austin has launched a similar project. Commercial products are now broadly incorporating GPS into asset-tracking systems, as well.

Precise campus location information has become integral to a number of commercial offerings using cell phones. Rave Wireless launched its Rave Guardian system that uses GPS-enabled cell phones to enhance student safety and security. This system can display a student’s warning signal and location on a central video display for campus security, and on Windows Mobile devices of security officers in the field. Montclair State incorporated the Rave system in its GPS Ranger system.

Students at Tufts University initiated development of the JoeyTracker system to help provide students with dynamic location information for the school’s fleet of Joey buses during routes. The system enables students to know when buses will reach designated stops, reportedly helping them avoid wait-times at bus stops at night and in bad weather. The project was developed in partnership with Ublip, a GPS products company based in Texas.

GPS has clearly arrived on campus, as demonstrated by these and other projects. Today, students have access to campus mapping and security systems through their cell phones, as well as instructional materials and course catalogs. It’s little wonder that the 2009 Horizon Report lists cell phones as one of the most significant trends for the future — thanks in some part no doubt to GPS.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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