scorecardScientists are piggybacking on internet satellites to break free from GPS dependence
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Scientists are piggybacking on internet satellites to break free from GPS dependence

Scientists are piggybacking on internet satellites to break free from GPS dependence
LifeScience2 min read
  • Scientists are banking on an increasingly dense constellation of Starlink satellites to develop an alternative to GPS.
  • This would allow them to track location and get navigation data without relying on the US government-owned GPS.
  • Engineer Zak Kassas and his team have already demonstrated location tracking with an accuracy of 7-8 metres.
GPS has become one of the core features of modern communication devices, be it smartphones or dedicated navigation devices. It works well for the most part and allows us to reach corners of the planet that wouldn’t have been possible for an unaware person otherwise.

GPS is also crucial in critical operations like search and rescue. But like many things, overdependence on a single provider can prove to be a disadvantage. In the worst-case scenario, if something as critical as satellite-based navigation systems are controlled by an enemy nation, this could prove disastrous for a country during times of war.

While this is an extreme scenario, scientists still want to reduce their dependence on GPS, short for Global Positioning System. Apart from dependence on one system, scientists also reckon that GPS coverage is not adequate in canyons and forests, preventing them from accurately tracking animals and earthquakes, for instance.

To solve this problem, scientists have come up with an ingenious solution – piggybacking on the fast-growing constellation of internet satellites launched by private companies like Starlink.

“I want to get to a point where I can say, ‘No GPS, no problem,’” says Zak Kassas, an electrical engineer at Ohio State University, Columbus, according to a report by Science, an international non-profit science association.

How are scientists piggybacking on internet satellites for location tracking?

Simply put, scientists are spying on signals going to and from these internet satellites to get an approximate idea about the location of an object they’re tracking.

The report adds that Kassas and his colleagues have demonstrated this by using satellites of two companies – Orbcomm and Iridium Communications. They’re now moving on to Starlink, which currently has over 1,700 satellites in the lower orbit.

To track location, Kassas and his team place small receivers on the ground. When one of these satellites fly past receivers, it beams a radio signal that is captured by these receivers.

Scientists use a combination of the Doppler effect and signals from six Starlink satellites to pinpoint their location on the ground, precise to 7-8 metres, according to a report published last week.

While this is still not as accurate as GPS, these are still early days and Kassas and his team hope to improve this in the future as they learn more about this and the density of Starlink satellites grows.

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