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Global Positioning System: A Generation of Service to the World

The 20th Anniversary of the Global Positioning System Full Operational Capability is July 17, 2015.

The 20th Anniversary of the Global Positioning System Full Operational Capability is July 17, 2015.

Global Positioning System

Air Force Space Command's Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif. marks the 20th anniversary of Global Positioning System achieving Full Operational Capability.(Artist's Illustration)

The GPS satellite constellation

The GPS satellite constellation

The Air Force and the 45th Space Wing supported the successful launch of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket from Launch Complex 37, March 25, 2015, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., carrying the Air Force's ninth Block IIF-09 navigation satellite for the Global Positioning System at 2:36 p.m. EDT. (Courtesy photo/Mike Killian) (For limited release)

The Air Force and the 45th Space Wing supported the successful launch of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket from Launch Complex 37, March 25, 2015, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., carrying the Air Force's ninth Block IIF-09 navigation satellite for the Global Positioning System at 2:36 p.m. EDT. (Courtesy photo/Mike Killian) (For limited release)

GPS Satellites II, IIR, IIF and III pictured over the Earth.

GPS Satellites II, IIR, IIF and III pictured over the Earth.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Logan Fountaine, 100th Civil Engineer Squadron engineering flight journeyman from Ontario, N.Y., uses a data collector to input information and GPS grid coordinates Oct. 16, 2013, located at each headstone in Madingley American Cemetery, near Cambridge, England. The equipment was a base station to collect data from 24 GPS satellites in orbit. All the data from the project will be used to create an electronic map to allow families and friends of those Americans lost in World War II to pinpoint the location of their resting place. (U.S. Air Force photo by Karen Abeyasekere/Released)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Logan Fountaine, 100th Civil Engineer Squadron engineering flight journeyman from Ontario, N.Y., uses a data collector to input information and GPS grid coordinates Oct. 16, 2013, located at each headstone in Madingley American Cemetery, near Cambridge, England. The equipment was a base station to collect data from 24 GPS satellites in orbit. All the data from the project will be used to create an electronic map to allow families and friends of those Americans lost in World War II to pinpoint the location of their resting place. (U.S. Air Force photo by Karen Abeyasekere/Released)

The many commercial uses of GPS.

The many commercial uses of GPS.

Hi Res GPS art

Hi Res GPS art

Matt Wentz coordinates countdown checklists inside the 1st Space Operations Squadron's operations floor Sept. 25 as seconds tick away toward the launch of Global Positioning System IIR-M 15 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. GPS IIR-M satellites offer a signal strength two to four times more powerful than their Block II predecessors. Mr. Wentz is a telemetry analyst with Lockheed Martin. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Matt Wentz coordinates countdown checklists inside the 1st Space Operations Squadron's operations floor Sept. 25 as seconds tick away toward the launch of Global Positioning System IIR-M 15 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. GPS IIR-M satellites offer a signal strength two to four times more powerful than their Block II predecessors. Mr. Wentz is a telemetry analyst with Lockheed Martin. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

GPS Block IIA satellite over the earth
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GPS Block IIA satellite over the earth

CBS/60 Minutes correspondent Dave Martin interviews Brig. Gen. Bill Cooley (standing-left), director of the GPS directorate for the Space and Missile Systems Center, in front of a GPS-IIF satellite at the Boeing facility in El Segundo, California for a two-part segment on Air Force Space Command that aired April 26, 2015. (Photo by Maj Eric Simon)
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CBS/60 Minutes correspondent Dave Martin interviews Brig. Gen. Bill Cooley (standing-left), director of the GPS directorate for the Space and Missile Systems Center, in front of a GPS-IIF satellite at the Boeing facility in El Segundo, California for a two-part segment on Air Force Space Command that aired April 26, 2015. (Photo by Maj Eric Simon)

Rendering of a GPS Block IIF on orbit. (courtesy graphic)
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Rendering of a GPS Block IIF on orbit. (courtesy graphic)

CBS/60 Minutes correspondent Dave Martin (right) interviews Brig. Gen. Bill Cooley, director of the GPS directorate for the Space and Missile Systems Center, inside a special satellite test chamber at the Boeing facility in El Segundo, California for a two-part segment on Air Force Space Command that aired April 26, 2015. (Photo by Maj Eric Simon)
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CBS/60 Minutes correspondent Dave Martin (right) interviews Brig. Gen. Bill Cooley, director of the GPS directorate for the Space and Missile Systems Center, inside a special satellite test chamber at the Boeing facility in El Segundo, California for a two-part segment on Air Force Space Command that aired April 26, 2015. (Photo by Maj Eric Simon)

Senior Airman John Tranum uses a PRC-117 multiband tactical radio to communicate with aircraft while Airman 1st Class Steve Vonack uses a PSN-13 defense advance GPS receiver to mark the target locations during an exercise May 29 on the Pacific Alaska Range Complex in Alaska. Airmen Tranum and Vonack are assigned to the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron tactical air control party from Fort Wainwright, Alaska. 3rd ASOS members coordinate, request, and control close air support, theater airlift, and reconnaissance. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder)
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Senior Airman John Tranum uses a PRC-117 multiband tactical radio to communicate with aircraft while Airman 1st Class Steve Vonack uses a PSN-13 defense advance GPS receiver to mark the target locations during an exercise May 29 on the Pacific Alaska Range Complex in Alaska. Airmen Tranum and Vonack are assigned to the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron tactical air control party from Fort Wainwright, Alaska. 3rd ASOS members coordinate, request, and control close air support, theater airlift, and reconnaissance. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder)

SrA Mark Peterson, 755th EMSG/ECES, uses a GPS rover to collect data points while surveying the 840-acre site of a new training compound for the Afghan National Army. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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SrA Mark Peterson, 755th EMSG/ECES, uses a GPS rover to collect data points while surveying the 840-acre site of a new training compound for the Afghan National Army. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The new GPS guided Screamer 2K bundle, Joint Precision Air Drop System, fall out of the back of a C-130 Hercules over Afghanistan Aug. 26, 2006 over.  The drop was made from 17,500 feet above mean sea level, and was the first joint Air Force Army operational drop of JPADS in the Central Command Area of Responsibility.  Four bundles were dropped from the Alaska Air National Guard C-130.  The system is designed to provide precision airdrops from high altitudes, elimination the treat of small arms fire.  All four bundles arrived at the drop zone, less than 25 meters from the desired target.    
(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)
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The new GPS guided Screamer 2K bundle, Joint Precision Air Drop System, fall out of the back of a C-130 Hercules over Afghanistan Aug. 26, 2006 over. The drop was made from 17,500 feet above mean sea level, and was the first joint Air Force Army operational drop of JPADS in the Central Command Area of Responsibility. Four bundles were dropped from the Alaska Air National Guard C-130. The system is designed to provide precision airdrops from high altitudes, elimination the treat of small arms fire. All four bundles arrived at the drop zone, less than 25 meters from the desired target. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Two JPADS slowly guide themselves to the ground following their drop from a C-130J aircraft June 16, 2012, in Las Vegas, Nev. The JPADS are unique in that they are equipped with GPS units allowing them to drift to a specific point set by the user. (U.S. Army photo/Spc. David McCarthy)
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Two JPADS slowly guide themselves to the ground following their drop from a C-130J aircraft June 16, 2012, in Las Vegas, Nev. The JPADS are unique in that they are equipped with GPS units allowing them to drift to a specific point set by the user. (U.S. Army photo/Spc. David McCarthy)

Employees at the Lockheed Martin plant in Valley Forge, Pa., prepare GPS IIR(M)-20 for shipment to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  The satellite, scheduled to launch June 30, is the last of the IIR-series GPS satellites the Air Force is receiving from Lockheed Martin. (Lockheed Martin photo/Stephen B. Griffin)
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Employees at the Lockheed Martin plant in Valley Forge, Pa., prepare GPS IIR(M)-20 for shipment to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The satellite, scheduled to launch June 30, is the last of the IIR-series GPS satellites the Air Force is receiving from Lockheed Martin. (Lockheed Martin photo/Stephen B. Griffin)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, JAPAN -- Staff Sergeant Kevin Howell, from the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron, screws in wiring while setting up Global Positioning Statellite (GPS) equipment on June 21, 2007.  The equipment is designed to transmit GPS mapping data to satellites in order to improve existing satellite maps. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman First Class Jonathan Fowler)
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YOKOTA AIR BASE, JAPAN -- Staff Sergeant Kevin Howell, from the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron, screws in wiring while setting up Global Positioning Statellite (GPS) equipment on June 21, 2007. The equipment is designed to transmit GPS mapping data to satellites in order to improve existing satellite maps. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman First Class Jonathan Fowler)

A Learjet, standing in for a Remotely Piloted Aircraft, flies into refueling position during Automated Aerial Refueling flights that tested Precision GPS algorithms and advanced sensors. (AFRL Image)
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A Learjet, standing in for a Remotely Piloted Aircraft, flies into refueling position during Automated Aerial Refueling flights that tested Precision GPS algorithms and advanced sensors. (AFRL Image)

ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Alaska state biologist Sean Farley and Staff Sgt. Brian Cole prepare to put ear tags on the sedated bear July 10. Farley teamed up with Elmendorf military conservation agents to tag and collar the bear with a GPS locator to track its movements throughout the state. Cole is a member of the 3rd Equipment Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman David Carbajal)
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ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Alaska state biologist Sean Farley and Staff Sgt. Brian Cole prepare to put ear tags on the sedated bear July 10. Farley teamed up with Elmendorf military conservation agents to tag and collar the bear with a GPS locator to track its movements throughout the state. Cole is a member of the 3rd Equipment Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman David Carbajal)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Twenty years ago, the United States Air Force announced the Global Positioning System had achieved Full Operational Capability. As of July 17, 1995, a total of 24 satellites were on orbit, providing global 24-hour coverage. In the two-decades since, GPS has been woven into nearly every aspect of human activity, from military operations to sports.

At the time "FOC" was announced, GPS had already proved its worth during Operation Desert Storm, allowing ground forces to navigate the featureless desert terrain, even when the system had only 16 satellites providing about 19 continuous hours of coverage per day. Today, roughly two-thirds of all munitions being used to combat ISIS rely on some form of GPS guidance.

Nearly forty years ago, the Air Force launched the first Global Positioning System satellite, dubbed Navstar. But even the most visionary of those people involved with that first launch probably could not have guessed how much GPS would eventually impact the world.

"It is amazing how people continue to find new and innovative uses for the GPS signal," said Micah Walter-Range, Space Foundation Director of Research and Analysis.

"GPS can be used on a personal level for summoning a taxi or ridesharing service to your precise location, or for letting your 'smart home' devices know when you are near your house so they can be ready and waiting for you. Businesses also rely heavily on the precision timing of the GPS signal, which enables companies to capitalize on the reliability and accuracy of an atomic clock for a relatively low cost," he said.

Part of life

GPS technology is woven into nearly every area of modern life from banking to farming, from complex military operations to how athletes train.  According to the Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency, there are four billion GPS-enabled devices worldwide, a number that is expected to double in the next five years. A recent study by research firm Markets and Markets estimates the global GPS market will reach over $26 billion by 2016.

GPS precision timing allows a business to time-stamp transactions regardless of location. A company knows its time-stamp will be the same in New York as it is in Tokyo. This synchronization is critical for keeping global telecommunications and financial networks from grinding to a halt.

Recreational users are creating art or messages using GPS tracking, making the world their canvas.

"Recently a man in Japan used GPS tracking to create a marriage proposal that spanned more than 4,300 miles," said Walter-Range. "We expect individuals and businesses to keep coming up with new applications that the creators of GPS would never have imagined."

A military tool, A civilian utility

With the proliferation of GPS uses, it is easy to forget it started as a military technology, one that is still integral to military operations.

"Using GPS on the battlefield goes beyond navigation and precision timing," said Lt. Col. Todd Benson commander, 2nd Space Operations Squadron, which maintains the GPS constellation. "From troops on the ground, ships at sea and aircraft over targets, today nearly every military operation has some type of GPS tie-in and support."

"The Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, is GPS-aided. That's the weapon of choice for precision guided munitions. Some people might know it as a smart bomb; GPS is what makes it smart."

GPS is also making parachutes smart. The Joint Precision Airdrop System, or JPADS, can steer itself to a drop zone a significant distance from its release point. JPADS can keep both the aircraft and the troops on the ground safer because neither has to move through dangerous areas to make the drop. JPADS can also deliver to multiple ground targets from the same airdrop.

GPS is also used heavily in air operations, from basic three-dimensional positioning to enabling aircraft to find each other for refueling operations, performing precise maneuvers in three-dimensional airspace. It is indispensable to Search and Rescue crews, for both military and civilian operations.

Brought to the world by Airmen

So, how many people does it take to operate a system that many people rely on, both civilian and military? Hundreds? Thousands?

"If you go to Schriever Air Force Base today and you walk into the 2nd Space Operations Squadron, in a little room you'll find seven Airmen," said General John Hyten, commander, Air Force Space Command, in a recent speech.

"(Their) average age will be about 23 years old. Those Airmen are providing everything that is GPS for the entire world. Everything," he said.

"So if you're on a bass boat in the middle of Alabama; if you're on a golf course in the middle of Scotland; wherever you happen to be using GPS, those seven Airmen, average age 23, are providing those capabilities. That's pretty amazing."

Air Force Space Command continues to enhance the GPS signal through technology upgrades. GPS III is scheduled to launch in 2017 and will be a more robust, reliable vehicle with a longer mission life, complete with multiple signals to support both military and civilian users.