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GPS and


A basic understanding of a complex system and the algebra used to determine position.

Ronald W Phoebus Jr. Math 45 Linear Algebra Fall 2003


Navigation by means of celestial observation, spherical trigonometry, and hand computation had almost reached its present form by the time of Cap- tain James Cooke’s 1779 voyage to the Hawaiian Islands. For the next 150 years theses methods were used to determine our location on land or sea. 2 The same navigation needs applied in the beginning of the 20th century with the birth of aviation. Initially pilots navigated by a process of Dead Reckon- ing and Pilotage. By simply looking outside and making simple time distance computations they were able to find their way almost anywhere as long as fair weather prevailed. Like ships at sea, aircraft in clouds and inclement conditions cannot employ many of the common navigation techniques. Stars and geographical landmarks aren’t as visible or are non-existent. As com- mercial aviation progressed a need for a more advanced form of navigation was needed. In the 1940’s, the LORAN (Long Range Navigation) system was developed initially for the shipping industry along the busy coastal routes. This system utilized a system of land based radio transmitters that with the necessary receiving equipment onboard could allow the crew to find position rather easily and with considerable accuracy. Initially, for aircraft, the same system could for IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) navigation, provide an accu- racy of 0.25 nautical miles. While this was a suitable navigation system along the coastal sections, it did not provide a network of coverage that would al- low full transcontinental access for aircraft. So the FAA developed a network that consisted of VOR’s (Very-high frequency Omni Range) more useful for the needs of the aviation community. A VOR utilizes VHF frequencies like those used by FM radio and broadcast television. Although they are lim- ited by line of sight they can provide reliable reception up too 130 nautical miles. 3 Eventually this network became like a highway system and remains a prominent form of long range navigation today. However, the Department of Defense felt a need for a super-precise means of global positioning anywhere. Their solution was the Global Positioning system or GPS


GPS, operated by Unites States Department of Defense, was developed in the 1980’s and became

GPS, operated by Unites States Department of Defense, was developed in the 1980’s and became fully operational in1995. The system uses a constel- lation of satellites. The original design of the system provided for eighteen satellites in each orbit. In the basic plan, the six obits are evenly spaced at 60 degrees around the earth, in planes that are inclined at 55 deg from the equator. Orbits are circular, at a rather-high altitude of 12,000 miles above the surface of the Earth, with a period of 12 hours. GPS satellites are powered by solar energy. They have back up batteries in the event of solar eclipse or other interruptions in solar energy. They are also fitted with small rocket boosters on each satellite to maintain their orbits, important in their function to maintain orbital position. GPS satellites transmit two lower power radio signals on radio frequencies, 1227.60 MHz. and 1575.42 MHz. Designated L2 and L1 respectively. The signals travel by line of sight, meaning they will pass through clouds, glass and plastics but will not go through most slid objects such as buildings and mountains. 4 However, since the satellite signal comes from above, the limits of line of sight is far less than in older navigation systems. A GPS signal contains three different bits of


information, a pseudorandom code, ephemeris data and almanac data. The pseudorandom code is simply an I.D. code that identifies which satellite is transmitting information. Ephemeris data, which is constantly transmitted by each satellite, contains important information about the status of the satellite (healthy or unhealthy) and the current date and time. This part of the signal is essential for determining a position and will be the subject of out mathematical model presented later. The almanac data tells the GPS receiver where each GPS satellite should be at any time throughout the day. Each satellite transmits almanac data showing the orbital information for that satellite and for every other satellite in the system. 4


Current GPS receivers are electronic marvels. They are hand -held, run on small batteries, weigh as little as nine ounces, and can cost under 150 dollars. We can turn on a receiver at any point on or above the surface of the Earth, and within a few minutes, see a display showing our latitude, longitude, and altitude. The indicated surface position is usually accurate to within 100 meters, and the altitude is usually in error by no more than 160 meters. How does a small radio receiver listen to a group of satellites, and then compute our position, with great accuracy? We start by noting exactly what sort of information is received from the satellites. Each satellite sends signals, on both of its frequencies, giving (i) its position and (ii) the exact times at which the signals were transmitted. The receiver also picks up time signals from the satellites, and uses them to maintain its’ own clock. When a signal comes in from a satellite, the receiver records the difference, ∆t, in the time at which the signal was transmitted and the time at which it was received. If the Earth had no atmosphere, the receiver could use the speed, c, of radio waves in a vacuum to compute our distance d = c t from the known position of the satellite. This information would suffice to show that we are located at some point on a huge sphere of radius d, centered at the point from which the satellite transmitted. 2 Dan Kalman presents a nice model in his paper An Underdetermined Linear system for GPS. He writes the basic idea of GPS is a variant on three di- mensional triangulation: a point on the surface of the earth is determined by its distances from three other points. Here, the point we wish to determine is the location of the GPS receiver, the other points are satellites, and the distances are computed using the travel times of radio signals. This requires


accurate time keeping, prompting a slight modification of the pure spatial triangulation problem. In the modified version, we need four satellites, rather than three, and can then calculate both the location, and the correct time, at the GPS receiver. Before presenting the example, I should make it clear that the computations that follow are not the same as the methods actually used by GPS. The example assumes exact geometric knowledge, whereas GPS has to deal with real world measurement errors. Thus, GPS typically uses more than four satellites, and a least-squares method to determine the best esti- mate of the location and time at the receiver. 1

The Model

For concreteness, consider a ship at sea in an unknown location. It has a GPS receiver that obtains simultaneous signals from four satellites. Each signal specifies its transmission time and the position of the satellite at that time. This allows the GPS receiver to compute its position and time. To be- gin with, we imagine that there is an xyz-coordinate system with the earth centered at the origin, the positive z axis running through the north pole and fixed relative to the earth. The unknown position of the ship can be ex- pressed as a point (x, y, z), which can later be translated into a latitude and longitude. To simplify things, let us mark off the three axes in units equal to the radius of the earth. Thus, a point at sea level will have x 2 + y 2 + z 2 = 1 in this system. Also, we will measure time in units of milliseconds. The GPS system finds distances by knowing how long it takes a radio signal to get from one point to another. For this we need to know the speed of light, approximately equal to .047 (in units of earth radii per millisecond). 1 Our ship is at an unknown position and has no clock. It receives simultaneous signals from four satellites, giving their positions and times as shown in Table 1. (These numbers were made up for the example; in a real case the satellite positions would not be such simple vectors . 1


Table 1. Satellites Data





1 (1, 2, 0)


2 (2, 0, 2)


3 (1, 1, 1)


4 (2, 1, 1)


Let (x, y, z) be the ship’s position and t the time when the signal arrives. Our goal is to determine the value of these variables. Using the data from the fourth satellite, we can compute the distance from the ship as follows. The signal was sent at time 19.9 and arrived at time t. travelling at a speed of .047, that makes the distance

D = .047(t 19.9) This same distance can be expressed in terms of(x, y, z) and the satellite’s position (1, 2, 0)

D =

(x 1) 2 + (y 1) 2 + (z 0) 2

Combining these results leads to the equation

(x 1) 2 + (y 2) 2 + z 2

Algebraic Solution

= . 047(t 19.9) 2

(x 1) 2 + (y 2) 2 + z 2 = . 047(t 19. 9) 2

Similarly, we can derive a corresponding equation for each of the other three satellites. That gives us four equations in four unknowns, and so we can solve for x, y, z and t. These are not linear equations, but we can use algebra to obtain a linear system that we can solve. Expanding all the squares and rearranging leads to:

2x + 4y 2(. 047)(19. 9)t = 1 2 + 2 2 . 047 2 (19. 9) 2 + x 2 + y 2 + z 2 .047 2 t 2 Similar equations can be derived from the three other satellites. Writing all four equations together gives

2x + 4y + 0z 2(. 047 2 )(19.9)t = 1 2 + 2 2 + 0 2 . 047 2 (19. 9) 2 + x 2 + y 2 + z 2 . 047 2 t 2 4x + 0y + 4z 2(.047 2 )(2. 4)t = 1 2 + 2 2 + 0 2 . 047 2 (2.42) 2 + x 2 + y 2 + z 2 . 047 2 t 2

2x + 2y + 2z 2(. 047 2 )(32.6)t

4x + 2y + 0z 2(. 047 2 )(19.9)t = 1 2 + 2 2 + 0 2 .047 2 (19. 9) 2 + x 2 + y 2 + z 2 . 047 2 t 2

= 1 2 + 2 2 + 0 2 .047 2 (32. 6) 2 + x 2 + y 2 + z 2 . 047 2 t 2


The quadratic terms in all the equations are the same, so by subtracting the first equation from the other three, we obtain a system of three linear equations:

2x + 4y + 0z 2(. 047 2 )(17. 5)t = 8 5 + . 047 2 (19. 9 2 2. 4) 2 0x + 2y + 2z 2(.047 2 )(12. 7)t = 3 5 + .047 2 (19. 9 2 32.6) 2 2x + 2y + 0z 2(.047 2 )(0)t = 5 5 + . 047 2 (19. 9 2 19. 9) 2

By deriving the general solution, it will be possible to express three of the unknowns in terms of the fourth. Then, substitution in one of the original quadratic equations will produce a quadratic equation in one variable. Solv- ing that in turn will lead, in turn, to values for the other three variables. So, proceeding according to this plan, we formulate the linear systems an augmented matrix:








2 . 056


. 007


3. 86

3. 86


The reduced row echelon form for the matrix is:

0 0 . 095 5.41

0 1 . 067 3.67




1 0 . 095 5.43 .

Therefore, the general solution yields:

x = 5. 41 .095t, y = 5. 41 . 095t, z = 3.67 . 067t, tisfree

Returning to (1), and substituting the above expressions for x, y, z, we obtain

(5. 41 . 095t 1) 2 + (5. 41 . 095t 2) 2 + (3.67 . 067t) 2 = .047 2 (t 19. 9) 2


0.02t 1. 88t + 43. 56 = 0,


leading to two solutions, 43.1 and 50.0. If we select the first selection, then (x, y, z) = (1.317, 1.317, 0.790), which has a length of about 2. We are using units of earth radii, so this point is around 4000 miles above the surface of the earth. The second value of t leads to (x, y, z) = (.667,.667,.332), with length 0.9997. That places the point on the surface of the earth and gives the location of the ship. Of course to use the information, we would want to convert it to a latitude and longitude.1 Dr Kalman provides a nice example in the use of linear algebra for solving a system. However as he noted, it is not the complete story. There are many other refinements that must be taken into account to provide for the accuracies expected. I’ll leave you with some example of the complexity of the actual process.

with some example of the complexity of the actual process. Although GPS in an extreme advancement

Although GPS in an extreme advancement in navigational technology, it has its limitations. Sources of GPS signal errors: Factors that can degrade the GPS signal and thus affect accuracy include the following:

Ionosphere and troposphere delays - The satellite signal slows as it passes through the atmosphere. The GPS system uses a built-in model that calculates an average amount of delay to partially correct for this type of error.

Signal multipath - This occurs when the GPS signal is reflected off objects such as tall buildings or large rock surfaces before it reaches the receiver. This increases the travel time of the signal, thereby causing errors.

Receiver clock errors - A receiver’s build-in clocks is not as accurate as the atomic clocks onboard the GPS satellites. Therefore, it may have very slight timing errors.


Orbital errors - Also known asephemeris errors, these are inaccuracies of the satellite’s reported location.

Number of satellites visible -The more satellites a GPS receiver can ”see,”, the better the accuracy. Buildings, terrain, electronic interference, or some- times even dense foliage can block signal reception and thereby cause position errors or possibly no position reading at all. GPS units typically will not work indoors, underwater or underground.

Satellite geometry/shading -This refers to the relative position of the satellites at any given time. Ideal satellite geometry exists when the satellites are located at wide angles relative to each other. Poor geometry results when the satellites are located in a line or in a tight grouping. 5


1. Dan Kalman, An underdetermined linear system for GPS, The Math-

ematical Association of America 33:5 (2002) 384-390

2. Richard B Thompson, Global positioning system: The mathematics of

GPS receivers, Mathematics Magazine 71:4 (1998) 260-270

3. Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., Instrument Commercial Manual 2000

4. Garmin Website

5. Trimble Website