How does GPS tracking work: Simple explanation of the inner workings of the GPS system

GPS is an abbreviation that we are seeing constantly in our daily lives. Have you ever thought of what it stands for? How it works?

Some of you probably know the meaning, but not the specifics of the GPS. Here we will explain all you need to know about GPS, all the simple details that help in keeping track of your phone, car, even your kids.

The basic concept of GPS

The Global Positioning System – in short GPS is a radio-navigation system established by the US government. This system uses the Global Navigation Satellite System – a satellite network around the Earth, to pinpoint the exact location of a GPS tracking unit anywhere on the globe.

This system is run by the US Air Force and is available to every user with a GPS tracker. It operates independently from cell phone service signal, although this signal helps in using and tracking.

Under the hood of the GPS system

The GPS system is based on a very simple mathematics principle but operates through some complex computer and engineering feats. The operating principle of the GPS is based on the mathematical principle of trilateration – determining the relative or absolute locations of a point by measuring the distance via geometric equations of circles, spheres and triangles.

The Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) consists of a network of 31 satellites, all of which have very precise atomic clocks that enable a very precise location of their position around the globe.

The satellite network is able to measure the exact position of the desired GPS tracking unit via microwave signals that are then converted into comprehensible information of the location, direction and speed of movement.

The structural construction is comprised of three segments: space, control and user segments.

The space segment

GPS satellite network that enables tracking. To accurately measure the location of a GPS unit, the unit must be in direct line with at least three satellites, a more precise reading is available with four satellites.

The layout of the global satellite network is such that they orbit the Earth once every 12 hours, meaning that any place on the planet is visible by at least four satellites at a given time of day. This enables global tracking at virtually every location around the globe at any time of day.

The control segment

This segment consists of ground antennas and stations that monitor and take care for the satellites. The various monitoring stations, ground antennas and master control stations track and make sure that the satellites stay on their correct path, or make necessary changes in the paths of the satellites.

The user segment

The end user part of the GPS. The GPS user unit can be used for navigation or tracking, for civilian or military applications.

Uses of GPS system

The main uses of the GPS system are for navigation and tracking purposes.

GPS navigation

The GPS navigation unit receives information from the satellite network, calculates the geo-position and converts this information into a map form or directions path. The GPS navigation unit is mounted in a vehicle and using the provided satellite data it provides directions, information on roadside stops like gas-stations, hospitals, restaurants, historical sites and other important or interesting sites.

It also gives info on closed roads, traffic jams, busy streets, the shortest route between the selected locations, info on back roads and alternative paths.

GPS tracking

A GPS tracking unit uses the GPS system to determine and track its own precise location. The GPS unit can store this data or it may transmit it to a database, computer, an app or another receiver according to the specifications of the unit.

The GPS tracking unit generally consists of a GPS module that receives the GPS signal and makes the necessary calculations. According to the intended use, the GPS tracking unit can have a modem to transmit the information, or a memory drive to store the data.

There are three types of GPS trackers, all with their own intended use.

GPS data logger

A GPS device that only logs the position of the device in regularly prescribed intervals. This is used in many digital cameras that have built-in GPS receiver and produce geo-tagged photos.

GPS data pullers

These devices are also known as GPS transponders. These devices are always on and the required information is queried (pulled) from them as needed. An example of this unit is a computer connected to the Internet that runs GPS software.

GPS data pushers

The most common type of GPS tracker is used for tracking of assets, people and vehicles. The data pusher is known as a GPS beacon, and it sends (pushes) the information on the position of its location, along with various other information like speed, the direction of movement and the like at regularly prescribed intervals.

The information is then sent to a server or an app that analyzes the data and provides the location against a suitable map.

Examples of uses of GPS tracking

Every cell phone has a GPS tracking feature, and today there are apps that are available for every OS.

The GPS data pusher can be installed in a vehicle to track the location and movement of the vehicle. The commercial fleets (distribution services, taxis, UBER, LYFT) are usually equipped with these kinds of systems to monitor the activity of the vehicles.

Law enforcement uses the GPS tracker to track its vehicles, or persons on bail, or for surveillance purposes.

Sports where the constant following of the movement is very difficult with conventional means: boating sports, gliding sports, cycling, etc.

Aircraft tracking to have additional or backup tracking of the aircraft.

Animal control where the animals are tagged with a GPS tracker and their location is tracked for studying purposes, conservation or following the migration paths.

Personal tracking, where the person (usually a child or an elderly person) carries a GPS tracker on its person, and the data is sent to a caregiver that can follow their location.

To sum up

This is the basic info that you need to know about GPS, the GPS tracking and examples on some of the intended uses of the GPS tracking units. The specific details depend on the design and manufacturing of the GPS tracking units and the specific users.

We hope that you found this article helpful. If yes, then tell us your opinions, and if no, please ask your questions in the comments below, and we’ll do our best to answer them.