The four engineers who created GPS have been awarded a top engineering prize of £1 million in honor of their invention.
The four engineers who invented the GPS system have received the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, a prestigious engineering accolade with a £1 million prize that celebrates the global benefit of engineering innovation on humanity. They received the award from Prince Charles at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London last week.
His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales presented the award to Dr Bradford Parkinson, Hugo Fruehauf, Richard Schwartz, and Anna Marie Spilker, who accepted the award on behalf of her late husband, Professor James Spilker, Jr. They were honored for their work in creating the first truly global, satellite-based positioning system, GPS.
Dr Bradford Parkinson—often regarded as the “father of GPS”—led the development, design, and testing of the system. Hugo Fruehauf developed a highly accurate, miniaturized atomic clock, a foundational component of the system. Richard Schwartz engineered a satellite hardened to resist intense radiation in space, with a lifespan three times greater than expected. Professor James Spilker, Jr, was the main designer of the GPS civil signal and, with his team at Stanford Telecommunications, built the receiver that processed the first GPS satellite signals.
GPS combines a constellation of at least 24 orbiting satellites with ground stations and receiving devices. Each satellite broadcasts a radio signal containing its location and the time from an extremely accurate onboard atomic clock. GPS receivers need signals from at least four satellites to determine their position; they measure the time delay in each signal to calculate the distance to each satellite, then use that information to pinpoint the receiver’s location on earth.
It’s thought an estimated four billion people around the world use GPS. At just $2 per receiver, GPS provides an accessible service and a tool that people can integrate with their applications. Simple smartphone apps can track disease outbreaks, self-driving tractors can optimize crop harvests, and sports teams can improve team performance. New applications for GPS continue to revolutionize entire industries, and its annual economic value has been estimated to be $80 billion for the USA alone.
EE Times marked its 20th Anniversary (in 1992) with a special edition that put the focus on our readers — the logo you see here was designed for that issue. We’ve been celebrating the efforts and the lives of engineers continuously for nearly 50 years, but it’s always a fine time to do it formally. Do you know an engineer who made a big difference at a crucial time? Contact us with your candidate for our ongoing series “Celebrating the Engineer.”
Lord Browne of Madingley, chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation, said: “This year’s laureates have demonstrated that engineering makes things happen. With the first global, satellite-based positioning system, they created an engineered system which provides free, immediate and accurate information about position and time, anywhere around the globe. The high-frequency trading systems, telecommunications and electricity grids of today are all built around GPS. And we will rely on it for the drone delivery systems, self-driving cars and climate monitoring solutions of tomorrow.”
“In honoring the 2019 prize winners, we hope to inspire the next generation of engineers to continue to push back the frontiers of the possible.”
Bradford Parkinson said the award marks a landmark moment in all of our lives. “There is no prize for engineering greater than this, it is an honor. This recognition reflects the responsibility incumbent upon those developing technology today to strive to do so for the good of humanity. Day-after-day, we are astounded at the new ways in which people across the world use GPS. It is a ‘system for humanity’ in each and every sense.”
Hugo Fruehauf added, “The atomic clocks we built for the satellites were accurate to within billionths of a second, but today’s generation are working a factor of 100 times better than that. They’re a lot like wine, in a sense—they only get better with time. And they have to be accurate; the timing for GPS is used for core systems around the world — vital infrastructure like banking systems, telecommunications networks, and power grids. Today the world relies on those clocks.”
Richard Schwartz said, “We designed the system to produce a signal that anyone can use, regardless of where they are on the planet. Today, engineers around the world can still access that signal, for free, and use it to build creative solutions to benefit people around them. It took a great deal of collaboration to make the system work, and it’s great to see the next generation collaborating on innovative products now because of that.”
Anna Marie Spilker, on behalf her late husband, Professor James Spilker, Jr, said, “Jim’s mission statement has always been to create, teach, and mentor for world-changing benefits to humanity through his engineering talents. When working on GPS, Jim knew that it could be of profound benefit globally, and he was right; because of their work, Jim and his colleagues have helped billions of people around the world. He was immensely proud of that. He said many times that engineering technology is the necessary catalyst for progress to world changing benefits to humanity.”
Timeline and challenges
Richard Schwartz told EE Times a little more about the background and the challenges in developing the system. He said, “The architecture was decided in the fall of 1973. My team at Rockwell had a design in early 1974, and we won the competition in June of 1974 to build four satellites, launch them, and measure the navigation accuracy from space. Our design was good and neither we or the Air Force made any changes between go ahead and first flight. We could and did concentrate on designing, building, and testing our design. We launched the first satellite 44 months from go ahead and launched the four satellites in nine months. Both of these were records at the time, and all satellites performed as designed.”
“The Air Force had set up a good spec. for the system for us to build the satellites. They defined a point in the sky, the weight the booster could lift, and the signal power on the ground. All the specifics were up to us. The resources were very limited, so we all committed to excellence on the first design and the first try.”
We asked whether they recognized the significance of what they were developing at the time. Schwartz said, “Right from the very beginning of GPS, the whole team knew they were working on something that could have a big impact on the military and we dreamed about potential commercial uses. No one on GPS felt they were ‘just doing their job.’”
“The Eureka moment occurred in four steps as each satellite was turned on and the Big Bang when the four satellites produced an accurate and usable navigation signal. The GPS program was off and running.”
And what were the challenges? Schwartz said, “The biggest technical challenge was the clock. The GPS concept required a very accurate atomic clock in space so that all receivers could have inexpensive clocks. The clock had to work for five years in the harsh Van Allen belt environment. With a lot of good engineering we provided these clocks for all four launches and they worked great. The reality of GPS was achieved.”
Bradford Parkinson created a number of sketches in 1978-79 of the potential he saw for GPS — we have reproduced a small selection of them here (below) with his permission.
He told EE Times, “The technology of that time had not yet met my vision. The modern microchip, or integrated circuit had not yet been commercialized. As a result everything was done with discrete components — high costs, high power, and very bulky. I am very gratified that virtually all of them have now been realized.”