‘Front-door’ GPS tracking in the palm of your hand

New centimetre-accurate GPS to revolutionise drone delivery, vehicle safety and gaming

GPS in a smartphone might be affected by interference from other applications, frequent movement or our sweaty hands getting in the way

GPS in a smartphone might be affected by interference from other applications, frequent movement or our sweaty hands getting in the way

 

GPS is great. It has allowed for innovation in areas as diverse as astronomy, cartography, telephony, robotics, space exploration and sports etc.

Critics complain it has damaged humanity’s natural compass. A small price to pay, it would seem, for turning a generation of incompetent pizza delivery boys into location demigods.

And yet, despite being around since the second World War, it’s still not great (at least for civilians, it’s not).

The pizza delivery boy still needs to call when he is almost there to get the exact address.

There lies the problem within. GPS (Global Positioning System) will ‘almost’ get us to our destinations. In 2015, that doesn’t cut it.

The accuracy of commercial systems is negatively affected by a number of variables. Some are unknown and unpredictable to some extent, while others are difficult to control. The ionosphere disturbs GPS signals as they travel from space to earth. Solar weather can also affect accuracy.

GPS in a smartphone might also be affected by interference from other applications, frequent movement or our sweaty hands getting in the way.

The main culprit, however, is low-grade antennae, according to research conducted at the Cockrell School of Engineering in the University of Texas (UT), Austin.

“Smartphone manufacturers pay about two cents for the ‘crushed paper clip’-style antennae they place into their devices,” says Ken Pesyna, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering at UT and researcher on the team that has developed a new, low-cost centimetre-accurate GPS system.

“So they should,” he adds. “They are trying to keep costs down and current GPS systems are perfectly adequate for most consumers.”

But more accurate, low-cost GPS systems would have a significant impact on industries such as virtual reality (VR) gaming, car manufacturing and retail delivery.

After six years of research, a team of UT engineers are developing this software technology.

Now industry is lining up to get involved. “The technology was already in existence,” stresses Pesyna. “Centimetre-accurate GPS is widely used in surveying and in farming. But the receiver and antennae could cost around $6,000 (€5,300).”

Current parameters

The researchers knew they had to work within the parameters of current smartphone technology levels.

So they developed a sensitive software-based GPS receiver that can obtain more accuracy from the cheap antennae found in mobile devices.

The research team, led by assistant professor Todd Humphreys from the aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics department at UT, has developed a device costing around $100 (€88) which could be attached to any smartphone, thereby allowing for low-cost centimetre-accurate tracking in the palm of one’s hand.

People are excited. The technology would enable drone-type vehicles to deliver packages to a consumer’s front door, vastly safer cars with built-in collision-avoidance technologies and VR headsets that could be used outdoors.

Gaming

“Imagine games where, rather than sit in front of a monitor and play, you are in your backyard actually running around with other players,” said lead researcher Humphreys in a recent interview.

“To be able to do this type of outdoor, multiplayer virtual reality game, you need highly accurate position and orientation that is tied to a global reference frame.”

The team at Humphreys’s radionavigation lab in Austin has done just that: built a system that cuts location error from the size of a Texan pick-up truck to the size of a penny. This means it is 100 times more accurate.

“Our new GPS system, hooked up to a smartphone camera, could be used to build a globally referenced 3D map of one’s surroundings which would significantly expand the radius of any VR game,” says Pesyna (VR currently does not use GPS, which limits its use to indoors and usually a one- to two- metre radius).

The team at UT has started a company, RadioSense, to help commercialise their research. However, there is still a way to go.

While they have developed a snap-on external module that could be attached to any phone, the ultimate goal should be to make it small enough to fit into a device.

Riding the wave

“We’re only dealing with the software,” says Pesyna. “But the aim would still be to develop technology that could be built into our smartphones.

“We’re basically riding the wave of current smartphone technology. They’re the ones increasing power and reducing costs and we can continue to innovate and evolve our offering as long as they continue innovating also.”

This article was amended for a minor clarification on Monday, May 18th.

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