Monday, February 25, 2008


The global positioning system (GPS) is a satellite based radio navigation system. Its RNAV guidance is worldwide in scope. There are no symbols for GPS on aeronautical charts as it is a space-based system with global coverage. Development of the system is underway so that GPS will be capable of providing the primary means of electronic navigation. Portable and yoke mounted units are proving to be very popular in addition to those permanently installed in the airplane.

Extensive navigation databases are common features in airplane GPS receivers. The GPS is a satellite radio navigation and time dissemination system developed and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Civilian interface and GPS system status is available from the U.S.

Coast Guard. It is not necessary to understand the technical aspects of GPS operation to use it in VFR/instrument flight rules (IFR) navigation. It does differ significantly from conventional, ground-based electronic navigation, and awareness of those differences is important. Awareness of equipment approvals and limitations is critical to the safety of flight. The GPS system is composed of three major elements:
  1. The space segment is composed of a constellation of 26 satellites orbiting approximately 10,900 NM above the Earth. The operational satellites are often referred to as the GPS constellation. The satellites are not geosynchronous but instead orbit the Earth in periods of approximately 12 hours. Each satellite is equipped with highly stable atomic clocks and transmits a unique code and navigation message. Transmitting in the UHF range means that the signals are virtually unaffected by weather although they are subject to line-of-sight limitations. The satellites must be above the horizon (as seen by the receiver's antenna) to be usable for navigation.
  2. The control segment consists of a master control station at Falcon AFB, Colorado Springs, CO, five monitor stations, and three ground antennas. The monitor stations and ground antennas are distributed around the Earth to allow continual monitoring and communications with the satellites. Updates and corrections to the navigational message broadcast by each satellite are uplinked to the satellites as they pass over the ground antennas.
  3. The user segment consists of all components associated with the GPS receiver, ranging from portable, hand-held receivers to receivers permanently installed in the airplane. The receiver matches the satellite's coded signal by shifting its own identical code in a matching process to precisely measure the time of arrival. Knowing the speed the signal traveled (approximately 186,000 miles per second) and the exact broadcast time, the distance traveled by the signal can be inferred from its arrival time. To solve for its location, the GPS receiver utilizes the signals of at least four of the best- positioned satellites to yield a three-dimensional fix (latitude, longitude, and altitude). A two- dimensional fix (latitude and longitude only) can be determined with as few as three satellites. GPS receivers have extensive databases.

Databases are provided initially by the receiver manufacturer and updated by the manufacturer or a designated data agency. A wide variety of GPS receivers with extensive navigation capabilities are available. Panel mounted units permanently installed in the airplane may be used for VFR and may also have certain IFR approvals. Portable hand-held and yoke mounted GPS receivers are also popular, although these are limited to VFR use.

Not all GPS receivers on the market are suited for air navigation. Marine, recreational, and surveying units, for example, are not suitable for airplane use. As with LORAN-C receivers, GPS unit features and operating procedures vary widely. The pilot must be familiar with the manufacturer's operating guide. Placards, switch positions, and annunciators should be carefully observed.

Initialization of the unit will require several minutes and should be accomplished prior to flight. If the unit has not been operated for several months or if it has been moved to a significantly different location (by several hundred miles) while off, this may require several additional minutes. During initialization, the unit will make internal integrity checks, acquire satellite signals, and display the database revision date. While the unit will operate with an expired database, the database should be current, or verified to be correct, prior to relying on it for navigation. VFR navigation with GPS can be as simple as selecting a destination (an airport, VOR, NDB, intersection, or pilot defined waypoint) and placing the unit in the navigation mode. Course guidance provided will be a great circle route (shortest distance) direct to the destination. Many units provide advisory information about special use airspace and minimum safe altitudes, along with extensive airport data, and ATC services and frequencies. Users having prior experience with LORAN-C receivers will note many similarities in the wealth of navigation information available, although the technical principles of operation are quite different.

All GPS receivers have integral (built into the unit) navigation displays and some feature integral moving map displays. Some panel-mounted units will drive a VOR indicator, HSI, or even an external moving map display. GPS course deviation is linear—there is not an increase in tracking sensitivity as the airplane approaches a waypoint. Pilots must carefully observe placards, selector switch positions, and annunciator indications when utilizing GPS as installations and approvals can vary widely.

The integral GPS navigation display (like most LORAN-C units) uses several additional navigational terms beyond those used in NDB and VOR navigation. Some of these terms, whose abbreviations vary among manufacturers, are shown below. The pilot should consult the manufacturer's operating guide for specific definitions.

NOTAMs should be reviewed prior to relying on GPS for navigation. GPS NOTAMs will be issued to announce outages for specific GPS satellites by pseudorandom noise code (PRN) and satellite vehicle number (SVN). Pilots may obtain GPS NOTAMs from FSS briefers only upon request.

When using any sophisticated and highly capable navigation system, such as LORAN-C or GPS, there is a strong temptation to rely almost exclusively on that unit, to the detriment of using other techniques of position keeping. The prudent pilot will never rely on one means of navigation when others are available for cross-check and backup.

1 comment:

  1. GPS is the way to future. I see in next 20 years or so , may be no vehicle in our countries will be without gps. However , cost is still a problem , specially in developing nations. But I am sure , with increase in demand the cost will come down. Nice blog.