I’d be lost without GPS.
I can’t even begin to mention how many times this extraordinary piece of tech saved me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a good driver…
But I drive around a lot, and she’s like my driving buddy.
It’s the female voice who keeps me informed about hazards on the road, the shortcuts, the traffic, the cheapest gas stations, and even tells me to “Drive Safe” before I start my journey.
It’s funny sometimes how I tell her “sorry” when I miss an exit and “thank you” when I reach my destination.
I even catch myself get mad at her when she’s a bit slow.
(Yes, I know it’s not a real person, we discussed it in my previous article called Rude Technology…!)
But have you ever thought what it’d be like if the world woke up tomorrow without this awesome service?
What would happen if the GPS across all devices simply stopped working?
It’s a bigger deal than one might think.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading because you’ll be surprised.
Once upon a time…
This fantastic technology is known as GPS actually stands for Global Positioning System, and has been around since 1973.
Interestingly, we (the general public) were not supposed to have access to it.
The US Government placed a group of satellites (24 to be exact) to orbit around the Earth for national defence, homeland security, civil, commercial, and scientific needs.
But later in 1983, a Soviet SU-15 brought down a Korean passenger jet for entering prohibited Soviet airspace.
Apparently, the world-wide GPS could have prevented this tragedy, and help avoid future tragedies of this kind.
So, President Ronald Raegan made this service public on the 16th of September 1983.
He did have one condition however, that the US military should have the best data available, whereas the public version would have its accuracy to a radius of 100 meters.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 when President Bill Clinton signed a bill that made the free-GPS system more accurate for all people in and out of the United States.
According to a 2017 UK Government report: “The Global Positioning System (GPS) is one – albeit the original and most utilised – of four Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) that provide positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) information via satellites orbiting in space. This information allows users with a compatible receiver (e.g. smartphone) to determine their position, velocity and precise universal and local time.”
How Does It Work?
So, imagine you’re standing somewhere (anywhere), and you have approximately four satellites above you.
Each one of these satellites broadcasts radio signals at the speed of light. (Yeah, that fast.)
The GPS device back on Earth receives these radio signals, noting their exact time of arrival, and by calculating the distance from each other satellite can locate your exact position.
The more satellites above the horizon, the more accurate your GPS is.
A Day Without GPS
Based on the 2017 UK Government report, a day in the UK without GPS would be something like this:
In the morning you would wake up as usual, but you wouldn’t be able to check the weather accurately. (It’s the UK though, so chances are that it will be raining.)
If you are driving without a GPS though, you would probably have to start paying attention to the world around you and keep an eye out for signs in order to get from point A to point B.
That doesn’t sound so bad unless you actually don’t know the way to where you’re going.
If this is the case, and you’re headed somewhere for the first time, you’ll probably need a map.
And when I say map, I mean the real old-school map that is something like this:
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
Why struggle with maps, and not get a cab?
Well, you see, if you needed a cab, you would have to actually call for one because you wouldn’t be able to locate the nearest cab without GPS.
Additionally, you would probably hear chaotic background noise on the phone because the operator would be trying to communicate with the drivers via phone or “walkie talkies” (if they actually answer that is, because the lines will probably be jammed).
Okay, so basically, you can’t be bothered with a map because you would be something like this:
And, you don’t wanna call a cab because roads would be so packed with drivers slowing to look at signs or stopping to check out their maps.
So, you decide to get the train.
Well, the train would be a good choice, unless you don’t mind waiting at an over-crowded station without an information board.
Additionally, when the train eventually arrives, the doors won’t immediately open because the train system must be reset at every stop.
Transportation is not the only thing that would be extremely hard without GPS.
So many jobs would also be affected.
An example is that of container cranes.
Snarl-ups at ports would be dramatic because container cranes need GPS to unload ships. This would slow down the unload process tremendously.
Because of this, logistic drivers won’t be able to pick up cargo and shops won’t receive their merchandise.
As a result, factory workers will be sent home because inputs have not arrived.
Additionally, construction workers won’t be able to operate specific machinery and inputs from surveyors are no longer forthcoming.
Supermarkets will eventually run out of stuff and must-have products won’t arrive on time, thus there will be stock shortages and many unhappy customers.
Shops will probably start increasing prices because people will be hoarding products to be prepared.
Also, online shopping could lose efficiency and without as many deliveries goods could go bad.
All of the above, because we don’t have the Godsend service of GPS!
“911, What’s your emergency?”
First responders such as police, firefighters, ambulances etc., would no longer be able to locate you in case of an emergency.
They would have to use postcodes, addresses, and street numbers instead, meaning that precious time will be lost.
The BBC reported that if GPS went down in the UK it would cost about $1bn a day, for the first five days!
So in a nutshell, a day without GPS would be chaotic!
Not convinced? Here’s what went down back in 2016 when a GPS error occurred.
Error 404: GPS Signal Not Found
So back in 2016, it took only thirteen-millionths of a second for the whole world to go into panic mode.
Okay, wait, many people might have not even noticed it. But engineers in Europe freaked out big time.
The U.S Air Force was trying to take one of their GPS satellites offline, and they entered the incorrect time on it.
This little thirteen-millionths of a second delay actually disrupted the whole GPS system!
In fact, it disrupted GPS-dependent timing equipment around the world for more than 12 hours, and telecommunications slowly started to fail. *gasp*
According to The Atlantic “In parts of the U.S and Canada, police, fire, and EMS radio equipment stopped functioning. BBC digital radio was out for two days in many areas, and the anomaly was even detected in electrical power grids.”
Why and How?
I know it sounds surreal when I tell you that with just thirteen-millionths of a second the whole GPS system started breaking down.
This is because although it’s called the “Global Positioning System”, it’s actually about time, not maps.
So basically, each satellite (out of 24, plus several spares the U.S has) have many atomic clocks installed in them.
These clocks are synchronized with each other to the time standard used across the world which is Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), all the way down to the nanosecond.
The satellites’ data (e.g. exact time and location) are being broadcasted down to Earth into our GPS receivers.
So it’s really, really important that the time was synchronized globally because services such as telecom networks rely on these GPS clocks.
In his article “What Happens If GPS Fails?” Dan Glass stated that many services rely on the GPS system’s clocks in order to function.
More specifically he stated “The finance sector uses GPS-derived timing systems to timestamp ATM, credit card, and high-speed market transactions. Computer network synchronization, digital television and radio, Doppler radar weather reporting, seismic monitoring, even multi-camera sequencing for film production—GPS clocks have a hand in all.”
No “Plan B”
You better sit down for this…
Apparently, according to Mike Lombardi, a meteorologist at the National Institute for Standards and Technology there is no back up if the GPS system fails completely someday.
More specifically he stated: “Nobody knows exactly what would happen. Since so many of these technologies were designed specifically with GPS in mind, the unsettling truth is that there’s no backup.”
This has been concerning governments for over 15 years, and the Department of Transportation even issued a report back in 2001 saying that a backup navigation system is needed.
According to Glass, “a winding bureaucratic path has kept it from actually being implemented”. Great…
“We Love you GPS!”
It is safe to say, that a day without GPS would not be easy.
I still sometimes wonder how we functioned all those years without it!
At the end of the day, we’ve been blessed with this wonderful piece of tech and I’m really hoping it will stick around.
Because you never know, however, I would suggest that we all have a spare map in our cars just in case!