GPS creators awarded Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering

February 21st, 2019, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

The 2019 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (QEPrize) was awarded to four engineers responsible for creating the first truly global, satellite-based positioning system – GPS. The prestigious engineering accolade is a £1-million prize that celebrates the global impact of engineering innovation on humanity.

The 2019 winners are Dr Bradford Parkinson, Prof. James Spilker, Jr, Hugo Fruehauf, and Richard Schwartz. The 2019 QEPrize recognises the four engineers for providing accurate position and timing information for billions of people around the world.

The global positioning system represents a pioneering innovation which, for the first time, enabled free, immediate access to accurate position and timing information around the world. Today, an estimated four billion people around the world use GPS, and its applications range from navigation and disaster relief through to climate monitoring systems, banking systems, and the foundation of tomorrow’s transport, agriculture, and industry.

Richard Schwartz, Bradford Parkinson, James Spilker and Hugo Fruehauf.

Richard Schwartz, Bradford Parkinson, James Spilker and Hugo Fruehauf.

GPS uses a constellation of at least 24 orbiting satellites, ground stations, and receiving devices. Each satellite broadcasts a radio signal containing its location and the time from an extremely accurate onboard atomic clock. GPS receivers need signals from at least four satellites to determine their position; they measure the time delay in each signal to calculate the distance to each satellite, then use that information to pinpoint the receiver’s location on earth.

The basic tracking required for GPS dates back to the start of the space race, when radio operators tracked Sputnik I on its flight in 1957. Sputnik’s radio signals appeared to drop in frequency as it passed overhead, a phenomenon known as the Doppler shift that allowed the satellite’s position to be determined.

GPS has had a revolutionary impact upon modern society. At just $2 per receiver, GPS provides an accessible service and a powerful tool that people can integrate with their own applications. Simple smartphone apps can track disease outbreaks, self-driving tractors can optimise crop harvests, and sports teams can improve team performance. New applications for GPS continually appear, and its annual economic value has been estimated to be $80-billion for the USA alone.

Bradford Parkinson, the chief architect, is often called the father of GPS after successfully building upon several separate systems to create the current GPS design. Parkinson directed the programme and led the development, design, and testing of its key components. He insisted that GPS needed to be intuitive and inexpensive, which later made navigation accessible to billions.

Parkinson recruited James Spilker to design the signal that the satellites broadcast. This type of ranging signal is critical to the success of GPS for civilian use; it is resistant to jamming, precise, and allows multiple satellites to broadcast on the same frequency without interfering with each other. Spilker’s team also developed and built the first receiver to process the GPS satellite signals; his delay-locked loop process, used for tracking code division multiple access (CDMA) signals, is essential to GPS accuracy.

GPS receivers rely on accurate timing information, broadcasted from satellites, to determine their position on earth. Each satellite uses multiple atomic clocks – accurate to within billions of a second – to ensure consistent timing. Hugo Freuhauf led the development of a miniaturised, radiation-hardened atomic clock – the heart of the GPS satellite. Its accuracy is the backbone of communications systems, power grids, financial networks, and other critical infrastructure.

For the GPS programme to be affordable, each satellite had to be long-lived. Richard Schwartz was tasked with ensuring a three-year life span. His design was resistant to the intense radiation from the upper Van Allen belt, and it also lasted over nine years.

The QEPrize celebrates the engineers responsible for a ground-breaking innovation in engineering that has been of global benefit to humanity, and is awarded every two years. It aims to raise the public profile of engineering and inspire young people to take up the engineering challenges of the future. The inaugural winners in 2013 were Robert Kahn, Vint Cerf, Louis Pouzin, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen for revolutionising the way we communicate. In 2015, the prize was awarded to Dr Robert Langer for his advances and leadership in engineering at the interface with chemistry and medicine. His work in controlled release large molecule drug delivery systems has benefitted the lives of more than two billion people worldwide. In 2017, Eric Fossum, George Smith, Nobukazu Teranishi, and Michael Tompsett were awarded the prize for their combined contributions to digital imaging.

Contact QEPrize, info@qeprize.org

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