Navigation without GPS

In the age old days of yore, when there were no satellites floating through space in earth orbit, people were forced to navigate using “maps”. Now that GPS receivers and onboard navigational computers have been linked, companies like Garmin guarantee that you’ll never get lost on your way to a relative’s house again. However, you’re still dependent on those satellites in orbit. If you’ve got crappy sky views, or are driving through a canyon, you’re stuck.

Now Google has launched an application for their mobile maps product that relies on triangulation between cell phone towers to do exactly the same thing. Using signal time of arrival, the mobile device can pinpoint your location to within the bounds of accuracy needed for automobile navigation. I wouldn’t use this software for trying to find one particular spot (i.e., no geocaching) but for following a road map, pretty nice. This application will suffer from some of the same drawbacks as GPS, especially the low-coverage problem (not a lot of cell towers in the deep dark reaches of rural roadways), but it offers a second solution to the navigation problem.

This is not a new idea, but Google is, as usual, one of the first organizations to push it out into common use. There have been proposals to use cell tower triangulation for 911 geolocation, but I don’t know if there has been any progress on that front.

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2 Responses to Navigation without GPS

  1. Call me old-fashioned, but I still don’t know what was so wrong with maps in the first place. My map cost me $20 five years ago and is still going strong. If I’m lost I have to actually stop and read it, but that’s safer anyway since by definition I don’t know where I’m going.

  2. Bill Ruhsam says:

    I always carry a map as a backup, and I always check my route in detail before departing, but the onboard navigation devices are highly useful. For one thing, unless things go badly, you don’t need to stop to read that map. For another, at night it’s often very difficult to navigate with a lack of road identification signs and even an unawareness of what direction you’re going. I have personal experience with my family driving over an hour and a half along a road in Colorado only to discover that we ended up in Utah when we were actually searcing for Wyoming. Whoops. The onboard navigation would have fixed that very quickly.

    But I also agree that map-reading skills are falling on poor times. Even amongst some of my colleagues, I often wonder how they ever get from A to B without GPS, because they don’t seem to be able to tell one end of a map from another.

    I’m sure there is cognitive research out there that talks about who reads maps better, and why, but I regard it as a fundamental skill for anyone who drives; as much so or more than operating the vehicle.

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