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May 10th, 2016
Where have positioning and navigation been and where are they headed?

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Of the fundamental underpinning of geospatial technology, positioning and navigation form the foundation. Advancements in positioning make possible a continued layering of information about location with increasing accuracy. Navigation provides the purpose for most maps.

Together, position and navigation are the most used and useful geospatial technologies. Although they certainly stand alone, the seamless combination of position on a map with step-by-step directions has fueled some amazing advancements that most of us use on a daily basis. In fact, it’s these two technologies that are the most indispensable, causing real pain when not available.

This column is the second in a series that highlight each of the fundamental geospatial capabilities diving into the history of innovations, continuing challenges and potential opportunities.

Systems of Satellites

Positioning took a hook leap forward with the advent global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technology. GNSS has been dominated for a long period of time by the United States NAVSTAR GPS system, with the Russian GLONASS systems as the only other global system. China’s BeiDou navigation system and the European Union’s Galileo system are both slated to become global by 2020. India, France, and Japan each have or are planning regional navigation systems.

The interest in redundant systems with government control speaks to the strategic nature of GNSS as both an underpinning of the economy as well as military might. The systems continue to evolve with improved communications leading to improved positioning. A limitation remains in densely forested or urbanized area where unobstructed views of the sky is needed to establish a fix on at least three satellites to triangulate position. With further satellites and receivers that can access all of these systems, this problem is improved but not eliminated.

Seamlessness Needed

There are technologies that make the seamless navigation of these difficult areas possible, but what hasn’t been cracked is the ability to seamlessly navigate indoors as well. Indoor mapping is a major geospatial frontier that could profoundly impact both position and navigation technologies. While there are some indoor navigation technologies, a winning technology has yet to take hold.

Without a winning indoor positioning solution, most of our interior spaces have yet to be mapped. The potential market for indoor location technologies is huge given that we spend most of our time indoors and most commerce takes place indoors as well. The winning indoor positioning technologies will subsequently assist the mapping effort. Our ability to quickly and accurately capture indoor locations in detailed 3D is the likely best match for indoor navigation and the detailed models will have ancillary benefit for design and maintenance of our built infrastructure.

Autonomous Driver

By far the biggest driver for position and navigation is the burgeoning autonomous vehicle market. The sensors on these cars are great at directing and sensing, but they require a 3D map to provide a baseline of knowledge that helps them understand what’s coming. This need for 3D maps of our roadways to help our vehicles navigate automatically is driving a great deal of data collection and improved positioning.

Some say that these robotic and automated means of mobility are just five years away. Positioning and navigation are the primary tools that have made that revolution possible. Both technologies stand to benefit when the agents that they’ve unleashed continue to collect data and improve upon our maps.

Each technology has its trajectory beyond better, faster and cheaper. In the case of navigation and positioning, quicker means of communication and the availability of position signals are key drivers. We’ve come to trust the agents that tell us how to get where and they’re only going to get better as these technologies continue to proliferate.

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