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Why is China messing with our GPS coordinates?

If you ever get ‘Little Red Riding Hood, a big bad wolf may eat you’ kind of lost in China, the last thing you want to use is Google Maps (through a VPN because it is banned in the country anyway!). The navigation tool that more than a billion people rely on every month to reach their destinations goes totally bonkers when it comes to China.

Don’t be surprised if you see roads tearing through buildings or streets disappearing into the river when you toggle to satellite view. Uber drivers, who use Baidu to get around, will always call you to ask where you are — which could be a huge issue if you don’t speak Mandarin Chinese and can’t use Google to pinpoint the driver to your exact location. On top of that, there’s a good probability your hotel is anyway a block away from where you think it is.

Perhaps this is why the reference frame upon which China bases all its maps is known as ‘Mars Coordinates’ — as if they are not describing Earth’s geography at all! Mars Coordinates, or GCJ-02 datum, is precisely why you cannot depend on GPS in China. While the rest of the world uses the most common GPS standard known as the World Geodetic System 1984, or WGS-84, for all digital mapping products, China chose to adopt a system of coordinates that debuted during the Cold War era to bamboozle foreign intelligence agencies. GCJ-02’s algorithmic offset means your real location could be up to 500 meters east, west, north or south (yes, it’s that random) of what you see on the map.

Imagine you are an airplane pilot flying to a Chinese city like this Reddit user, and your GPS shows the runway way off from what the rest of the instruments are showing. “We’d rely on the land-based navigational aids. Not a big deal in some cities, but if it was mountainous terrain — not so reassuring.”

The ‘Surveying and Mapping Law of the People’s Republic of China’ puts mapping and documenting of all “elements of physical geography or the shapes, sizes, space positions, attributes, etc., of man-made surface installations” under state supervision in the name of “national defence and progress of the society.” It, however, fails to explain how will national security be upheld in times of emergency when its own citizens may encounter challenges with regard to local navigation. And let’s not even talk about the doom faced by local developers who might want an uncorrupted dataset for actual, beneficial use. Or the financial implications for an organization who cannot release a product or a solution in China because the location functions will simply not work like they are supposed to.

But, considering the confusing layout of Beijing streets is also attributed to the government’s plan to frustrate the ability of any invading army to find its way around, it is perhaps quite liberal of China to have provision in the law for matters “where it is really necessary to adopt the international coordinate system.” Then again, China has sued almost 40 foreign individuals and organizations (including Coca Cola!) for illegal surveying and mapping between 2006 and 2011 alone.

Regulations also demand that all foreign handheld devices must also display the offset or merely disable their GPS functions. Which is why, if your phone or camera detects it is in Chinese territory, its geo-tagging ability becomes bizarrely compromised.

So, what do you do if you are travelling to China and cannot turn to your otherwise reliable Google Maps to find your hotel or sightseeing spots? Well, Baidu Maps can be quite painful if you don’t read Chinese. Travelers have reported Bing Maps and Yahoo Maps to be useless as well. Apple Maps, however, seem to be a pretty safe bet. An additional reasonable solution is Amap, which is essentially in Chinese, but allows standard searches like banks and airports in English. Another option is ABCMaps that would even show you real-time traffic conditions (if available) over the road as color-coded lines.

Whatever you do, just don’t end up like this Reddit user in Beijing. “First I had to VPN to even reach Google, and when I did the maps were just about useless. Googling Chinese addresses can be hard anyway. Between the tech issues and the language barrier, I have never felt so ‘alone’ around so many people.” Sigh!

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Who invented the GPS? People behind the Global Positioning System.

That Alexander Graham Bell did not invent the telephone could be proven in court 113 years after the original inventor Antonio Meucci died. Thomas Edison’s name comes to mind when someone says ‘light bulb,’ but it was Humphry Davy who showed for the first time how light can be cast by passing an electric current through a platinum strip. The history of science is riddled with inventions whose ownership is hotly disputed. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is one of them. Who invented the GPS then?

GPS has become such an indispensable part of modern life that we have almost become dependent on it. It has slowly and steadily crept into our cars, ships, airplanes, cameras, construction equipment, agricultural machinery, laptops, and of course, smartphones.

And yet, there is a lack of consensus over who should be credited with its creation. At least four different people have been acknowledged to be clearly associated with the invention of this revolutionary technology which was ultimately developed by the US Department of Defense to assist the military forces.

Also read: What would happen if GPS failed?

Roger L. Easton

Roger L. Easton

This former head of Naval Research Laboratory’s space applications branch was the brain behind several engineering applications and technologies that enabled the development of the GPS. A Cold War scientist, Easton worked on technology to track satellites like the Soviet Union’s Sputnik before fathering a time-based navigational concept called TIMATION which utilized passive ranging, circular orbits, and space-borne high precision clocks synchronized to a master clock. Even today, these features are vital in any modern GPS.

In 2004, Easton received the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation from then-President George W. Bush. The honor was bestowed in recognition of “extensive pioneering achievements in spacecraft tracking, navigation, and timing technology that led to the development of the NAVSTAR-Global Positioning System.”

However, it wasn’t until 2010 that National Inventors Hall of Fame recognized Easton’s efforts in the creation of the GPS. In fact, in 2004, two other people were inducted into the Hall of Fame for championing the development of GPS technology.

Who were they? Let’s find out…

Ivan Getting

Dr. Ivan Getting

The Inventors Hall of Fame credits Dr. Getting for pressing forward “the concept of using an advanced system of satellites to allow the calculation of exquisitely precise positioning data for rapidly moving vehicles, ranging from cars to missiles.”

This founding president of The Aerospace Corporation is also recognized by the American National Academy of Engineering who awarded him the Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering in 2003 for the “concept and development of the GPS”. More specifically, the Academy credits Dr. Getting for his work on “the design of GPS, on its operational value, and on planning, negotiation, and reaching agreements with all the system’s stakeholders was critical to its becoming a reality.

Dr. Getting proposed a three-dimensional, time-difference-of-arrival position-finding system for navigation and by his own admission, “one of the proposals put forth by The Aerospace Corporation… was essentially what is now the GPS.” While acknowledging that the Navy had already developed a very good space navigation system when this proposal was put forward to the Department of Defense, Dr. Getting says, “The conclusion of the Director of Defense Research & Engineering (DDRE) was that a single system was required and that it should be based on the Air Force/Aerospace concept called GPS and developed by the Air Force with cooperation from all three services.”

Interesting read: Why is China messing with our GPS coordinates?

However, Easton’s son, Richard, has vehemently argued that Dr. Getting’s contributions, at best, are limited to supporting the GPS program, and as such, he shouldn’t be credited as being its inventor. Nonetheless, Richard is more accommodating toward sharing credit with the other Hall of Fame inductee who co-received the Charles Stark Draper Prize with Dr. Getting, Bradford Parkinson.

Bradford Parkinson

Brad Parkinson

Parkinson was at the forefront of the NAVSTAR GPS Joint Program Office from 1972 to 1978. The Inventors Hall of Fame is clear that “as the program’s first manager, he has been the chief architect of GPS throughout the system’s conception, engineering development, and implementation.” This has also earned Parkinson the title the ‘Father of GPS’.

Parkinson, an Air Force colonel at the time, was tasked to revive a Space and Missile Systems Organization program called 621B that provided altitude, as well as latitude and longitude for navigation purposes. And once the Department of Defense decided that it wanted a joint program developed with the cooperation of all military services, Parkinson was put in charge to pull such a program together.

Parkinson says in a Stanford address that this new program pulled the clocks from Easton’s TIMATION, the signal structure of 621B, and the orbital prediction method from another Navy navigation system called TRANSIT which was developed at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Together, these formed the NAVSTAR-Global Positioning System.

Dr. Gladys West

GPS inventor Gladys West

Dr. Gladys West

For Dr. West, the journey to be recognized as one of the key figures behind the invention of the GPS has been a long one. In 1956, Dr. West started working at the United States Naval Weapons Laboratory. This place was at the forefront of the post-Cold War era space race and home to the Naval Space Surveillance Center until 2004 when the Air Force took over the space reins. A mathematician by education, Dr. West would churn numbers and process data from satellites to help determine their exact location.

In December 2018, Dr. West was finally inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame – one of Air Force’s Space Commands Highest Honors. At the induction, the Air Force recognized Dr. West’s contribution in programming an IBM 7030 ‘Stretch’ computer to deliver “increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.”

Today, there are at least 31 operational GPS satellites orbing the Earth and impacting every aspect of our life.

[Note: The article was updated on Feb 10, 2019, to recognize Dr. Gladys West’s contribution. ]

Now see: How accurate is the altimeter in a GPS watch?

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