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GPS inventors win prize for greatest engineering innovation

The four inventors responsible for creating the first truly global positioning system (GPS), have been awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, viewed as the world’s most prestigious prize for engineering excellence.

Previous winners have included Robert Kahn, Vint Cerf, Louis Pouzin, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen, who revolutionised the way we communicate.

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Professor Spilker: “Finding and celebrating technology that can truly benefit humanity in addressing global concerns is amazing.”


Photo: QEPrize

This year’s winners — Dr Bradford Parkinson, Professor James Spilker, Jr, Hugo Fruehauf, and Richard Schwartz — were announced at a ceremony in London.

In awarding the prize, the judges pointed to the way that the GPS system has revolutionised international communications and, for the first time, enabled free, immediate access to accurate position and timing information around the world.

Today, an estimated four billion people around the world use GPS, and its applications range from navigation and disaster relief through to climate-monitoring systems, banking systems, and the foundation of tomorrow’s transport, agriculture, and industry.

SEE: IT pro’s guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

GPS uses at least 24 orbiting satellites, ground stations, and receiving devices, with each satellite broadcasting a radio signal containing its location and the time from an extremely accurate onboard atomic clock. GPS receivers need signals from at least four satellites to determine their position; they measure the time delay in each signal to calculate the distance to each satellite, then use that information to pinpoint the receiver’s location on earth.

The uses of GPS now go far beyond just navigation; at just $2 per receiver, it can be integrated with applications from tracking disease outbreaks to self-driving tractors, and the economic value has been estimated to be $80 billion a year for the US alone.

Parkinson is often called the ‘father of GPS’ after building upon several separate systems to create the GPS design. Parkinson recruited Spilker to design the signal that the satellites broadcast, critical for success of GPS for civilian use with a signal resistant to jamming, precise, and which allows multiple satellites to broadcast on the same frequency without interfering with each other. Spilker’s team also developed and built the first receiver to process the GPS satellite signals.

Freuhauf, then chief engineer at Rockwell Industries, led the development of a miniaturised, radiation-hardened atomic clock needed to create accurate timing information to be broadcast from the satellites, while Schwartz, the program manager at Rockwell, was tasked with ensuring the satellites had a three-year life span. 

When asked what receiving the award had meant for him, Spilker told ZDNet, “I am truly humbled and honoured to receive it.

“Our planet is facing a multitude of complex problems — from climate change to the dawn of autonomous cars — and finding and celebrating technology that can truly benefit humanity in addressing global concerns is amazing.”

He added: “We are all very closely-knit and it was truly a team effort creating GPS, which wouldn’t have been achieved alone. I was working on the technical families of signals to the satellites and even though we all had our separate roles, we all came together and decided unanimously that the civil applications and benefits of GPS, not just military ones, were world-changing and should be explored.”

Asked what he would do with the proceeds he said, “I was legally blind as a child. My mom had limited financial means. I was gifted to receive scholarships and fellowship to complete my Bachelor, Master’s and PhD in engineering in five years of education at Stanford University. Without that, I never would have been in this position of success. With that in mind, I plan on donating my winnings to Stanford University, to further the education of future generations.”

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