GPS upgrade to boost accuracy to within a metre

An $8 billion plan to replace all of the 24 GPS satellites gets underway

Barry Collins
24 May 2010

The fleet of GPS satellites are being given an $8bn upgrade, improving location accuracy to within one metre.

The upgrade programme will see each of the 24 GPS satellites replaced one by one. Eighteen new satellites are being built by Boeing's Space and Intelligence Systems, while a further dozen are being manufactured by Lockheed Martin. Six will be kept as spares.

The first of the replacement satellites was launched from Cape Canaveral this weekend. The upgrades will significantly improve the accuracy of the GPS system, with a report in the Los Angeles Times claiming that "the new system is designed to pinpoint someone's location within an arm's length".

Because GPS touches so many industries, it's hard to imagine what industry wouldn't be affected

The upgrades will do far more than provide more accurate instructions for drivers, with GPS being used across a wide range of industries. As well being used for military and commercial navigation, the atomic clocks inside the GPS satellites provide the precise timing required for billions of financial transactions, from stock trades to cash machines.

"This new system has the potential to deliver capabilities we haven't seen yet," Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for aerospace research firm Teal Group told the Los Angeles Times. "Because GPS touches so many industries, it's hard to imagine what industry wouldn't be affected."

The GPS upgrade is more than three years behind schedule, after the US military insisted upon new features, such as the ability to upgrade the satellites' software remotely.

The EU is building its own equivalent of the US-controlled GPS, called Galileo, which isn't expected to be operational until 2013 at the very earliest.

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