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GPS Meets Google Earth

March 30, 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
E-mail About the Author

Members of the 2nd Space Operations Squadron (2 SOPS) deployed a novel tool to Afghanistan last month, giving warfighters the ability to combine Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities with Google Earth. The resource enhances situational awareness and information sharing, and developers intend it to assist with planning efforts. Though only available on the classified network now, plans are underway to create an unclassified version as well.

Lt. Col. Jennifer Grant, USAF, commander of 2 SOPS, explains that the technology—which so far is unnamed—overlays GPS files on top of the terrain landscape provided by Google's mapping. "Those files often show us what our navigation signal coverage is over certain geographic areas," she says.

When warfighters use the tool, they see a picture of GPS coverage in almost real time. Col. Grant says that previous technology could offer only a snapshot of the past. The overarching goal for the project is "to provide an automatic real-time and near real-time mission planning product for the warfighter," she explains.

Users can employ the capability in several ways, including to conduct GPS troubleshooting. The squadron runs the GPS Operations Center (GPSOC), which functions as a 911 capability for personnel having trouble with GPS equipment. Using the new technology, those staffing the center can determine if the problem is related to satellite coverage or other high-end issues, and if not, they can advise the callers to check equipment on their end.

Commanders can use it to enhance their situational awareness and to prepare for upcoming operations. Leaders of smaller units on the ground can employ the capability to make decisions about movements. "It provides them with a good picture of the state of play at any particular point in time relative to what the GPS signal coverage is," Col. Grant explains.

Development of the tool began when Jordan Scott, a former U.S. Army captain and current GPSOC contractor, suggested the plan based on his experiences in Afghanistan. Center personnel quickly picked up on the concept and began innovating solutions; they developed the project in-house.

Col. Grant says her team members are constantly looking for better ways to modify software and product placement in the field, and they are enthusiastic about their work and what it means on the battlefield. "We at 2 SOPS are excited that GPS is in the fight every day," she says. "GPS has changed the face of the way we fight. In fact, we've had folks come back from the field, Army personnel, and say that for them it's sometimes even more important to have a GPS receiver with them than a box of bullets."

Benefits of the technology also could apply beyond the armed forces. "I could definitely see the potential for people outside the military being interested in using this," Col. Grant says. The GPSOC already provides support to nondefense agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. When the center looks at developing capabilities, they keep their various stakeholders in mind as possible users of the products.