4 December 2006 – It began as a military project, but location technology has changed the way we travel. There’s no longer any need to rely on outdated maps or your own sense of direction, since location systems are declining in price and improving in precision. Devices that fit on your dashboard or right in your pocket can keep you from ever getting lost again.
GPS, the original system created by the U.S. military, now has some help. The European Union’s similar and slightly more accurate Galileo system is about to go online, complementing GPS and filling in the gaps. Technology compatible with both standards will add to the location revolution. This year, SiGe Semiconductor offered the SE4120L, the world’s first GPS/Galileo IC receiver.
The SE4120L and similar products will find their way into more and more military, commercial, and especially consumer products. As handheld GPS receivers continue to decline in price, they’re becoming attractive to a wider audience of consumers, hunters, hikers, and boaters. In-car GPS navigation options are even being added to lower-end cars and trucks.
The SE4120L targets consumer electronics such as laptops, PDAs, cell phones, handheld and automotive navigation systems, digital cameras, and even MP3 players. It will receive Galileo and GPS signals. Its overall sensitivity is as high as 170 dBm, making it possible to grab weak satellite signals under difficult and degenerating environmental conditions.
The output signal is serial applied to the external baseband processing chip, usually an ARM9 or equivalent CPU that handles the navigation computation. The external processor, which is fully software programmed for Galileo and GPS functions, controls the SE4120L. The software-defined radio (SDR) nature of the resulting systems makes it possible to update the receiver as future versions of the Galileo system are finalized.
Only one Galileo satellite is in orbit so far, and it’s being used for testing. An additional satellite will be launched later this year. Several will be in operation by 2008, when service is expected to begin on a limited basis. The full constellation of 30 satellites isn’t expected to be in service until 2010. But when it goes online, the SE4120L and similar ICs will be ready.
Meanwhile, manufacturers continue to churn out location devices. And with their large color LCDs and extensive mapping, they’re more useful and attractive than ever. Look for that to continue. GPS already plays a huge role in the trucking business, where drivers enjoy the mapping capabilities and the owners love the ability to track and locate any truck and its cargo at any time.
The impetus for further widespread location-based technologies has been the FCC’s mandated E911 program, which requires all cell phones to eventually contain either GPS or some other location technology that can locate the cell phone from a 911 emergency call. Many CDMA phones already have GPS with an expectation of up to 25% penetration by 2008.
GSM phones have an alternative location technology called uplink-time difference of arrival (U-TDOA). But rumor has it that newer GSM phones will include GPS simply because it is more generally useful to subscribers who want navigation and location information. As consumers replace their old phones with newer phones that have the E911 location technology built in, we will begin to see real benefits like emergency location as well as special location-based services (LBS), whatever they may be.
Location technology is also expanding beyond GPS, Galileo, and other satellite navigation products. Systems using Wi-Fi and RFID are already available to track people and objects. RFID systems can even track conference participants by the RFID tags in their ID badges, showing what meeting rooms they were in, what exhibits they visited, and so on. With that kind of information, conference sponsors can figure out what is popular and interesting to better prepare future events.
Yet the prospect of all of this tracking scares the living daylights out of some people. What about privacy rights? Many critics say the technology just puts us one step closer to complete “Big Brother” monitoring. If you’re up to no good, that may be a concern. But the technology can be essential in locating, say, accident victims via E911 before it is too late to save them.