Wirecutter’s Medea Giordano argues that even in the age of smartphones with built-in map apps, there’s still a place in your car for a dedicated GPS device: “there are cases when a phone just doesn’t cut it—say, in rural areas where coverage is questionable, or if you simply don’t want to drain your phone’s battery and data plan. Or when you’ve just found it frustrating to use a phone for long trips, like I have.”
With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 almost upon us, there’s been an uptick in moon-related content, which includes moon-related map content. For example:
New Exhibition. Opening today at The Map House in London, The Mapping of the Moon: 1669-1969, an exhibition of three centuries of lunar cartography. “The exhibition includes rare early 17th and 18th Century observations of the moon from astronomers such as Athanasius Kircher and Jean-Dominique Cassini, important maps produced by NASA for lunar exploration, globes and signed material by astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean and Jim Lovell.” Runs until 21 July. [ARTFIXDaily]
New Map. The July 2019 issue of National Geographic has a new map of the Moon that updates the 1969 painted version (see above) with a mosaic based on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imagery. I don’t know whether that means a physical version of the map will be included with the issue as an insert, but I hope it does.
New Way to Navigate. NASA has a post on using GPS on the Moon. Now, I’d thought that using GPS on another world would require the deployment of a GPS satellite constellation around said world. No, this is about using Earth-orbiting GPS signals for lunar navigation, which simulations suggest is possible. The mind boggles.
A new study quantifies the economic benefits of GPS: in the U.S. alone, it estimates around $1.4 trillion in economic activity resulting from private-sector GPS use, about half of that coming from improvements in the telecommunications sector. (Roughly a quarter came from the telematics sector, and 15 percent from location-based services.) About 90 percent of those benefits have been generated in the last decade. The study also quantified the impact of a GPS outage: about a billion dollars a day, more if it occurred during planting season (agriculture has become reliant on GPS). [Ars Technica]
And speaking of GPS outages, earlier this month hundreds of flights were grounded over what appeared at first to be a GPS signal problem, but turned out to be a technical issue with GPS receivers made by Collins Aerospace. About 400 flights were cancelled on Sunday, 9 June, mostly involving Bombardier regional jets, but also other airliners and private aircraft. The FAA instructed pilots of affected aircraft to use other navigation methods; Collins says it has identified the issue and is working with the airlines. Coverage: AINonline, FlightGlobal, Forbes, GPS World, RNTF. [Jason Rabinowitz]
M. R. O’Connor’s book Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World came out in April from St. Martin’s Press. Not coincidentally, she’s published a couple of pieces on the subject of that book, both of which focus on humans’ ability to pay attention to their surroundings, and the effect that relying on GPS directions might have on that ability. In a piece for Undark, O’Connor argues that “our unshakeable trust in GPS,” which traces itself back through hundreds of years of believing in the infallibility of maps, gets us lost because we’re relying on the device rather than our senses. Her piece for the Washington Post focuses on the role of the hippocampus in navigation and spatial awareness, and the need to exercise that part of the brain.
Garmin announced the Overlander GPS receiver today. It’s designed for off-road, off-grid navigation, with maps that include public lands boundaries and 4×4 trails (in the Americas, at least), sensors to detect roll and pitch angles, and other features suitable for mucking around in a Jeep or ATV. Costs $700. [Engadget]
Anyone who assumes that the GPS device market has been killed by smartphones will be (a) surprised that Garmin is still around and (b) wrong. Though its automotive segment continues to decline—last quarter it was down to only 16.6 percent of Garmin’s revenues, making it Garmin’s smallest market segment—Garmin continues to do well in other market segments. Building devices for very specialized uses, for which a smartphone app might not be up for the task—see above—seems to be one of the ways it goes about that.
Russian authorities appear to be systematically messing with GPS and other GNSS signals in multiple locations, a new report from the Center for Advanced Defense Studies concludes (CBS News, Foreign Policy, Moscow Times, Wired). The tactic is called GPS spoofing: broadcasting a false GPS/GNSS signal in a specific location to fool GPS/GNSS receivers and render them unreliable or unusable. The incidents appear to correlate with sensitive Russian facilities, active combat zones, and the travel itinerary of one Vladimir V. Putin. In one case, while Putin was opening a bridge between Russia and Crimea, nearby ships were suddenly informed by their GPS/GNSS receivers that they were dozens of kilometres away from their actual position.
It’s probably overstating things to compare the GPS week rollover to the Y2K bug (The Next Web, The Verge) but it’s hard not to see some parallels. In each case, it’s a function of too little memory assigned to timestamps.
One of the things that GPS satellites do is transmit precise timing information. It does this in part by stating the week as a 10-bit integer, counting from week one. That means the date number rolls over every 1,024 weeks. Every 19.7 years, then, the GPS week “rolls over” and a new GPS epoch begins. It’s already happened once: the GPS era started on 6 January 1980, and the first rollover occured in August 1999. The next one takes place—oh dear—tomorrow. Cue the mass hysteria.
How will our GPS receivers respond to that rollover? Because it’s happened before, and because consumer GPS tech doesn’t necessarily stay in use for long periods of time, it’s unlikely that your or my GPS receivers are affected. Anything released in the past two decades would have programmed after the last rollover. Also, receivers might have have had an offset to the 1,024-week limit programmed into their firmware, starting the clock from the date of compilation rather than August 1999, so devices affected may not be affected all at once. U.S. government agencies note that GPS receivers that conform to the IS-GPS-200 specification should not be affected: PC Mag pins that on devices manufactured in 2010 or later.
My own legacy GPS receivers—a Garmin eTrex Legend H and an Oregon 450t—date from just before 2010, and while I haven’t used them in years (when your smartphone has built-in GPS, dedicated receivers are superfluous in the most common use cases), I’m half tempted to fire them up and see what happens. Both TomTom and Garmin claim that the vast majority of their devices are unaffected, but neither go so far as to give us a list of affected devices. Firmware updates are apparently being issued for some of those affected devices—but again, a list would help.
In any event, it appears that using GPS for location, even on an affected device, will not be broken: at worst your tracklogs will have inaccurate timestamps. Receivers that use GPS for accurate timekeeping that have not been updated to handle the rollover might run into some trouble, though. And, like Y2K, any problems might be in industrial or embedded systems rather than consumer tech—and from what I’ve seen online they’ve been getting warnings about this for years.
In other words, as far as I can tell, the GPS world will not come crashing down tomorrow.
The FCC has approved the use of the European Galileo satellite navigation system in mobile devices in the United States. Galileo is similar to GPS and the Russian GLONASS, but the satellite constellation won’t be complete until 2020 or so. Even so, devices like recent iPhones (from the 8 and X on) have support built-in. (Many smartphones have had GLONASS support for years.) FCC press release.
In the wake of reports that fitness apps’ user data was exposed and could be used to identify military and intelligence personnel in sensitive areas like bases and deployment zones, U.S. military and defense employees can no longer use geolocation features in devices and apps in operational areas. The new policy was announced last Friday. Also see coverage at Stars and Stripes. [Gizmodo]
Previously: Strava Heat Map Reveals Soldiers’ Locations; Non-Anonymized Strava User Data Is Accessible; Strava, Responding to Security Concerns, Disables Features; Polar Flow User Data Can Be Used to Identify Military and Intelligence Personnel.
It began with an osprey named Julie, who in 2015 migrated from the Detroit River in Michigan all the way to Maracaibo, Venezuela, stopping at wetlands and wildlife refuges along the way. Julie wore a GPS tracker. John Nelson took Julie’s data and created a series of maps of her journey that represent a brilliant use of negative space: aerial and satellite imagery is shown only along the paths she took; everything else is blanked out. It’s a linear map of a bird’s entire world. The Story Map goes into more detail; the accompanying text is frankly beautifully written. John explains how he made the maps here.
Remember how in January the mobile fitness app Strava was found to reveal the training routes and user data of military and security personnel? It wasn’t just Strava. A joint investigation by Bellingcat and De Correspondent found that the data for users of the Polar Flow app is even more exposed: even the names and home addresses of military and intelligence personnel working at embassies, bases, intelligence agencies and other sensitive locations could be figured out from the user data. De Correspondent shows how.
Polar, the Finnish company behind the app and service, announced that they were suspending the Explore feature that made the data accessible. They also note, and it’s worth remembering, that Polar data is private by default. If you’re military or intelligence and using a fitness app, what the hell are you doing exposing your location data—especially if you’re in a sensitive location?
The report also contains one hell of a buried lede. They tested other apps, namely Strava, Endomondo and Runkeeper, and, well: “Though it’s harder to identify people and find their home addresses than it is through Polar, we were ultimately able to do so using these apps. In contrast to Polar’s app, there is no indication that people whose profiles are set to private can also be identified in these apps. We informed them of our findings last week.” In other words, this is an industry-wide problem, not just a problem with one or two services. [The Verge]
Leonia, New Jersey’s decision to close its residential streets to non-residents (previously)—an attempt to deal with the traffic being routed that way by navigation apps like Waze—has also, like the apps that created the problem in the first place, resulted in some unintended consequences. On, for example, visiting relatives and local businesses.
Now seems an odd time to be launching a line of standalone, single-purpose GPS devices, but the Ordnance Survey has gone and done so: they’ve announced a total of four devices, ranging in size from the cycling-friendly Velo to the robust Aventura and in price from £370 to £500. The OS has been offering third-party devices from the likes of Garmin and Satmap through its online store; it’ll be interesting to see how people see these as measuring up against those devices—or against an app on the smartphone they may already own. More at Road.cc.
The Associated Press has a story about Gladys West, now 87, an African-American mathematician who did pivotal early work on the calculations that led to GPS.
She collected information from the orbiting machines, focusing on information that helped to determine their exact location as they transmitted from around the world. Data was entered into large scale “super computers” that filled entire rooms, and she worked on computer software that processed geoid heights, or precise surface elevations.
The process that led to GPS is too scientific for a newspaper story, but Gladys West would say it took a lot of work—equations checked and double-checked, along with lots of data collection and analysis. Although she might not have grasped its future usage, she was pleased by the company she kept.
If that reminds you a bit of Hidden Figures, it’s not just you. And if reading this piece makes you want to read about the process that led to GPS, even if it’s too scientific for a newspaper story, it’s not just you either. [Blavity]
Strava has reportedly disabled certain features in the wake of the privacy and security issues raised last month, with users reporting that they can no longer create workout segments. In a statement given to The Verge, Strava said: “We are reviewing features that were originally designed for athlete motivation and inspiration to ensure they cannot be compromised by people with bad intent.” [Canadian Cycling Magazine]