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"GPS was designed to allow nuclear missiles to be launched with pinpoint accuracy"
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Tuesday, 2 May, 2000, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Satellite navigation accuracy boosted
GPS watch
GPS receivers are becoming ever more common
The network of US navigation satellites called the Global Positioning System (GPS) has become 10 times more accurate at the flick of a switch.

GPS is a free service used by over four million people worldwide, but until 0000 GMT on Monday night the signal was deliberately degraded by the US military.

It's rare that someone can press a button and make something you own instantly more valuable, but that's exactly what's happened

Neal Lane, White House science adviser
They have now decided that allowing everyone to access the more accurate signal does not pose a security threat and have therefore unscrambled the signal. Existing equipment will pick up the improved signal.

The move will allow users such as sailors, motorists and hikers to pin down their position to at least 20 metres and perhaps 10m. The previous best was 100m.

Military gain

However, John Pike, a space policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists think tank, believes the action was not entirely altruistic.

The US plans more, upgraded GPS satellites
He said the US would benefit from the continued global use of its system, meaning the US military retains control of the technology. Offering the better US system for free takes away some of the incentive for another country or consortium to build a competing system, he added.

Announcing the GPS upgrade, US President Bill Clinton said: "The decision to discontinue [signal degradation] is supported by threat assessments which conclude it would have minimal impact on national security."

GPS uses
Transport: air, road, sea and rail
Emergency response
Oil exploration and mining
Precision farming
Scientific research
He continued: "Civilian users will realise a dramatic improvement in GPS accuracy. For example, emergency teams responding to a cry for help can now determine what side of the highway they must respond to, thereby saving precious minutes."

Restricted access

GPS was originally developed by the US Department of Defense and the military have developed even more accurate systems than are now available. They have also reserved the ability to degrade the signal in particular regions of the world, if military objectives make that desirable.

It took four years of deliberation to decide to increase the precision of GPS but it will be a major boost to the GPS industry. This is already expected to double in the next three years from $8bn to more than $16bn.

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