Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Making sense of the Global Positioning System

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Defense (and good ole President Ronald Reagan) GPS signals are freely available for civilian use. The fact is, today GPS is basically ubiquitous in most people's lives. Most new cars use it to show you where you are and your proximity to the nearest Starbucks. Raising the "cool factor" bar for technology using GPS is its implications on the Internet as we know it. For example people are geocoding their images in their online photo albums, Cool apps like Google Earth, Geocaching and all sorts of new creative games using real places are sprouting up all over the Internet (people are going outside again!). Basically, with GPS the Internet can break out of it's closed linear stage and becomes part of our real three dimensional world. Very cool, but more on that later - let's dive into what makes the Global Positioning System tick and how you can take advantage of the technology in your next project.

You will find that most GPS devices out there (USB GPS for your PC, handheld GPS's, etc etc) will report data from satellites in a neat standard format called NMEA. NMEA uses a serial ASCII protocol to send GPS data to your application for consumption. The resulting comma delimited data is piped out or logged sentence by sentence from your device. The NMEA format makes it easy to take the data and parse it anyway we'd like. Now we could just use the software that came with our Microsoft's Streets and Trips or Earthmate GPS but that's no fun.

Decoding GPS log files
There are many different types of NMEA sentences. Luckily they are all in an easy to read format. The first field is the sentence type and will start with $. I am only going to focus on a couple sentence types that give us our position information. For the purpose of this blog, we'll ignore the other sentences but there is plenty of references online about them.

My favorites, $GPGGA and $GPRMC. You will find that these two will have all the data you should need for tracking.

Example sentence (GPGGA):


Here is what each field means:
1 = UTC of Position
2 = Latitude
3 = N or S
4 = Longitude
5 = E or W
6 = GPS quality indicator (0=invalid; 1=GPS fix; 2=Diff. GPS fix)
7 = Number of satellites in use [not those in view]
8 = Horizontal dilution of position
9 = Antenna altitude above/below mean sea level (geoid)
10 = Meters (Antenna height unit)
11 = Geoidal separation (Diff. between WGS-84 earth ellipsoid and
mean sea level. -=geoid is below WGS-84 ellipsoid)
12 = Meters (Units of geoidal separation)
13 = Age in seconds since last update from diff. reference station
14 = Diff. reference station ID#
15 = Checksum

Example sentence (GPRMC):


Here is what each field means:

1 = UTC time of fix
2 = Data status (A=Valid position, V=navigation receiver warning)
3 = Latitude of fix
4 = N or S of longitude
5 = Longitude of fix
6 = E or W of longitude
7 = Speed over ground in knots
8 = Track made good in degrees True
9 = UTC date of fix
10 = Magnetic variation degrees (Easterly var. subtracts from true course)
11 = E or W of magnetic variation
12 = Mode indicator, (A=Autonomous, D=Differential, E=Estimated, N=Data not valid)
13 = Checksum

By parsing these etypes either in real time by reading the data from a COM port, or from an existing log file you can use the coordinate information in any way you choose. I am currently working on a cool (Ok, I think its cool..) vehicle tracking application that I should be releasing here on this site soon. There are allot of good examples floating around with source code that should give you a handle on using this data.

In closing, the Global Positioning System is a powerful resource that you can tap into and enable your applications to become spatially aware. This opens plenty of doors for new and innovative apps - so get coding!

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