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Galileo Next Generation GPS

Lost and Found

Call me a curmudgeon, but we used to be able to depend on certain things. If you were unruly in school, the teacher whacked your behind with a paddle. If your bike broke down on the side of the road, someone would stop and help out. And if the US government launched a high-tech global positioning system, you could depend on it to chart an accurate dual-sport adventure ride.

Sitting motionless in the driveway, I watch my location dance a tiny minuet around the miniature basemap on my Garmin III+ receiver mounted on my handlebars. Elevation fluctuates from 507 feet to 583 feet, and an accumulation of cookie crumb pixels indicated that I'm moving, but I'm not. It's frustratingly clear that GPS isn't being all that it can be. Of the 24 satellites in orbit, 16 are past their design life, and since 9/11 the military selectively denies GPS during military action. You never know when a smart-bomb attack in Afghanistan is preventing you from locking onto a signal, even with multiple satellites hovering above the horizon.

But that's about to change. With the recent launch of a sputnik from the Baikonur cosmodrome, the European Space Agency kicked off the new space race by introducing a consumer oriented and civilian managed satellite navigation system named Galileo. Operational by 2010, the constellation will consist of 30 cutting-edge dual band satellites, broadcasting an XM radio version of GPS. Delivering multiple levels of guaranteed service, the basic free offering promises accuracy down to 3 meters, five times better than the current system. Upgrade to the premium fee-based service and you can pinpoint your location within one meter (3 feet), and even down to five inches under ideal conditions.

Of course, as with any new technology, you'll need to upgrade your equipment because our current receivers are not compatible with the Galileo signal. Neither Garmin nor Magellan were willing to comment on their future product plans, but surely they will be introducing dual mode units in the next few years. And the feds won't be left behind in the space race for long. The US Commerce Department just announced that in September 2006 the Air Force will begin launching next generation GPS satellites, featuring a high-powered signal called L2C designed for commercial and personal use.

I managed to navigate my way out of the driveway, the long way round, but I'm still looking forward to discovering Galileo and its gee-whiz features. A next generation receiver probably means a new mounting system, a new hard-wired power connector and upgraded mapping software. That's a lot to ask of Santa. But accessorizing the motorcycle is an American dream. If we didn't have obsolescence through competition and new technology, we wouldn't have the world's largest economy´┐Żand that's something you depend on.

Mitch Comstock/Winter 06


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