Research Paper on GPS

Posted on February 16, 2009


The topic of this study is related to the introduction of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the United States (U.S) and its effect on the U.S in the past ten years.


The purpose of the report is to analyse the political factors influencing the development and introduction of the GPS. Hughes (1991) views on technological development will be used to support the political influences that governed the introduction of the GPS. Winner’s (Beder 1998, p.72) theory will also be used to explain the relationship between these political factors with the GPS. This report will also use Basalla’s (1988) views on social needs and choices to provide an understanding towards the relationship that existed between the society and the GPS after it has been in operation.


The scope will only be covering the political influences that governed the introduction of the GPS and its development. The study will also analyse the social factors that affected the use of the GPS after its introduction. Other factors such as technical, geographic and environmental would not be covered by this study.

Methods of Investigation

Factual and technical books regarding the GPS would be used to support the study. Government reports from the U.S will also be used in aid to support the analysis of this study. Theories used in this study would be taken from the Engineering for Sustainability text.


The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a radionavigation systems that have been created by the United States Department of Defence (Dod). The system is made up of a constellation of 24 satellites and its various ground stations. The series of satellites called “Nav star” orbits around the earth in several orbits. The navigation system uses radio frequencies sent out by the series of satellites which can locate a position where a transmitter is present (El-Rabbany, 2002).
The GPS was built for military purposes (Andrade, 2001). The development of the GPS used about US10 billion in taxpayer’s money (El-Rabbany, 2002). The GPS came to public attention after the classified information of its usage became known during the Persian Gulf War (DoD Report to Congress, 1992). The GPS was used for navigation, tracking, bomb and missile guidance, rescue and map updating (Andrade, 2001). This information is crucial in times of war for through the GPS, allied troops are able to launch assaults in the night, carry out rescue and covert operations and infiltration of enemy base camps (DoD Report to Congress, 1992).

The system has only been available for public use for a decade ago. This was due to demand for the need of locating objects for various reasons and also the need of reducing cost which is the restricted limitation of applications and usage of the GPS. (Drake & Rizos, 1998). The host of the GPS is the Department of Defence in the United States of America. Due to public demands, the DoD has researched and innovated the GPS system to be ready for public use. One of the aims of the system was to develop a single unified application. A single unified application that allowed more civilian use and user friendly (Logsdon, 1995).
This was very attractive to real time users such as businesses and the public. Local government authorities can also benefit from it such as the police and fire departments for life and death situations. To an extent, it will also have value in terms of security of the property of a private owner. Initially, it was only affordable to large corporations, largely because of the need for insurance of a valuable item. It was a gradual process where the GPS was available for use by the general public.

Due to other technological advances such as more efficient communication systems, geographic databases and innovations and breakthroughs in the microchip industry and the availability of Internet access, the GPS became more affordable; hence, it is now widely used (Andrade, 2001). In 1980, a GPS receiver cost approximately US10 000 and through innovations in the microchip industry, smaller GPS receivers were built at a fraction of the price which led to the introduction of the first hand-held receiver priced below $1000 in 1992. In 1997, the cheapest receiver up to date was introduced to the public, priced at $100 running on two AA batteries (Andrade, 2001).

Although built for military purposes, due to social needs, the GPS has been innovated for the use of the public. Such uses can be seen in the field of transportation, geographic research and weather prediction (El-Rabbany, 2002). The information of position can be invaluable in these areas if given in relation to the intended path, showing points of interest and potential hazards: an aircraft position in relation to a destination; a car on a moving street map; or a boat in relation to islands and obstacles. Combined with communication technology such as the cellular phone, the knowledge of position can be life saving, reducing search and rescue mission to simply rescue mission (El-Rabbany, 2002).

Transportation with GPS monitoring can keep unwanted traffic away in certain places (Drake & Rizos, 1998). An example of this would be the prevention an oversize truck to travel along residential roads, against the regulations, by having a GPS tracking device on them (Drake & Rizos, 1998) In business management where there are mobile goods such as a concrete truck, the truck can be fixed with a GPS tracking device. This could help improve productivity as the company can keep track of where it is. Hence, the customer can ask the concrete company where the truck is and when precisely her/his delivery can arrive.

The GPS can also aid in environmental research such as wild life research and help to locate rehabilitated animals which have been released. Thus locating them through the GPS, researchers can observe their tracks and have a better understanding of the specie (Kreiter, 2001).

Engineers at Purdue University and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have developed a way to use GPS satellites to monitor the environment, which could lead to better weather prediction models (Kreiter, 2001). They had been trying to develop a system using GPS signals to image things on the ground, measuring soil moisture and the thickness of ice on the Earth’s surface (Kreiter, 2001). The advantage of using the GPS signal to make the measurements over existing equipments is that it cuts the amount of the hardware necessary by more than half. The GPS measurements appear to be just as accurate as dedicated transmitters and receivers currently in use, and are more reliable during storms (Kreiter, 2001).

Finally it can be seen that the use of the technology has gone to shape itself so that society can use it in a common fashion and affordable manner. The future prospects of this technology will depend on how well it copes with other advancing technology.

Hughes Theory

Hughes (1991) presented that, every technology or technological change will have political, economic and technical factors. This report will analyse the relationship between the political factors and the GPS technology. In this case, the U.S government realized that the GPS is a powerful and useful technology, so they have spent a lot of money to research it (El-Rabbany, 2002). The GPS was built for military purposes to increase the military might of the U.S and with this came political power (Andrade, 2001). It is evident because in 1991, the “Navster GPS” was used in the Persian Gulf War and with it; it gave the U.S an advantage over the Iraqis forces (DoD Report to Congress, 1992). For this positioning equipment, it can increase their control over land vehicles, ships, aircraft and precision-guided weapon around the world (Andrade, 2001). This gave the U.S a huge military advantage and gave victory to the U.S over the Iraqis.

Winner’s Theory

Winner (Beder 1998, p.72) presents theories that explain the relationship between politics and a certain technology.
GPS, as mentioned was developed by the U.S military. However, politics is the main supplier to provide support to the development of this technology (Andrade, 2001). In this we can see that the military department was the one who developed the GPS, but its development was spurred by political needs. The government of U.S needed a technology that could monitor the movements of governments around the world. For this would give them an advantage over countries that should wish that wage war against the U.S (Andrade, 2001). For the GPS to be researched and developed, it required a huge sum of funding (El-Rabbany, 2002). Only through government grants, did the GPS project take place. (Andrade, 2001).
This can be supported by Winner’s (Beder 1998, p.72) theory that a technology “appears to require or to be strongly compatible with particular kinds of power relationships”. With Winner’s theory, we can conclude that politics was the driving force to the creation of the GPS. This conclusion is made because political factors are the ones that govern the distribution of government money and fund, and through this, the GPS was provided the necessary funds to begin operations (Andrade, 2001).

Basalla’s Theory

Basalla (1988) introduced the idea of social and cultural choice involving the adoption of a certain technology. He also mentioned that an invention alters itself due to meet the needs of the society. The GPS was brought to use in the early 1990s and has since influenced the society gradually. Although the U.S. Department of Defence created the system to serve the sole purpose of military applications, it has evolved since its launch (Andrade, 2001). Through the needs of the general public and commercial demand, it has far transformed from its original role to aid in the transportation business, geographic research field and also in weather prediction and surface monitoring (El-Rabbany, 2002).
This demonstrated Basalla’s (1988) theory of social and cultural choice, where the invention alters itself due to meet the desire of the user. It can be seen that the GPS has been put to different uses after its introduction although built for a different purpose.


Through the analysis of the study, it can be seen how political factors needs and goals were the driving force into the introduction of the GPS system. Built for military purposes, it has managed to strengthen the military might of the U.S forces rendering them an advantage as seen in the Gulf War. Through Hughes’ and Winner’s theories, it is evident to see the relationship that existed between the political factors and the GPS system.
In concluding with Basalla’s views on social choices, it can clearly be seen that ultimately it was social choice that dictated how the GPS was used in the U.S. Used by the U.S for military purposes, but the constraints of public needs and demands, dictated that the uses of GPS be changed to meet its needs. In the past decade, the uses of GPS have increased tremendously rendering the world virtually smaller. Users are now able to communicate with each other even in remotest part of the world owing to this technology.
In realizing the relations of the theories of technological developments with our daily lives, engineers are able to understand and more equipped towards the task are creating a more sustainable future.

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