Many of us rely on GPS (Global Positioning System) to estimate travel times, find our way to new places, avoid traffic jams, keep track of our kids, and generally avoid getting lost.
But it’s not always the most reliable system, especially in built-up areas where it’s difficult to maintain a line of sight to the satellite.
Now, researchers have come up with a new and improved technology that could eventually replace GPS in some situations. It’s called SuperGPS, it’s accurate to within 10 centimeters (or 3.9 inches), and it doesn’t rely on navigational satellite systems.
The new method uses a network similar to a cellular network, but instead of streaming data to our phones, the network makes precise repairs on the device.
A combination of radio transmitters and fiber optic networks forms the base of the system, with some clever tweaks on top.
“We realized that with some cutting-edge innovations, the telecommunications network could be transformed into a very accurate alternative positioning system, independent of GPS,” says physicist Jeroen Koelemeij of Vrije University Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
“We have succeeded and have successfully developed a system that can provide connectivity like existing mobile and Wi-Fi networks, and precise positioning and time distribution like GPS.”
At a test site with six radio transmitters, the researchers were able to demonstrate their system in an area of 660 square meters (7,104 square feet). The timing of transmitted radio signals can be measured and interpreted to measure distance and then reveal the location of individual devices.
One of the key components of the new network’s positioning system is the synchronized atomic clocks: perfect timing means more precise positioning. Essentially, the fiber optic cable acts as the connection, keeping everything in sync and accurate to a nanosecond.
The system also deploys a much larger radio signal bandwidth than normal — although expensive due to the scarcity of radio spectrum bandwidth, the team used several small-bandwidth radio signals combined to form a larger virtual bandwidth for Telecommunication.
This extra bandwidth overcomes one of the biggest problems with standard GPS, which is that radio signals bounce off buildings and quickly become garbled.
“This would make GPS unreliable in urban environments, for example, which is a problem if we want to use self-driving cars,” said Christiaan Tiberius, an electrical engineer at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
According to the researchers who developed it, in addition to self-driving cars, the new system could also be used to plan quantum communication networks and next-generation networks of mobile devices.
While the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), including GPS, certainly has its uses and will continue to do so for a long time to come, experts are constantly finding ways to improve and perfect it.
More testing is needed to confirm this as a true replacement for GPS. The proposed web-based system also takes time to set up, although its transport protocol and hardware are already in use. According to the researchers, current mobile and Wi-Fi base stations are at least up to the job.
In their published paper, the researchers said: “This work provides a glimpse into a future in which telecommunication networks not only provide connectivity, but also GNSS-independent timing and positioning services with unprecedented accuracy and reliability.”
The study was published in nature.