With the press of a button on a phone, you can find where you are in the world with near-pinpoint accuracy. Something that would have seemed like magic not long ago is taken for granted today. However, it’s no miracle, and the most common system used today for navigation and much more is called the Global Positioning System or GPS for short. Keep reading to learn more about GPS, its definition, uses, and importance.


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Table of contents

    GPS Definition

    The Global Positioning System as of 2022 is a series of 31 satellites orbiting the Earth. These satellites connect with receivers on the ground and can pinpoint the exact location of the receivers. GPS originated as a project with the US Department of Defense, and its first satellite was launched in 1978. Today, GPS is still operated by the United States Space Force but is free for civilian use worldwide.

    GPS is considered a global navigation satellite system or GNSS for short. Other GNSS exist today, such as the European Union’s Galileo system, but GPS remains the most comprehensive and widely used. To receive the most complete and precise data on geolocation, at least four GPS satellites need to be connected to the receiver.

    GPS: A system of orbital satellites used to find the location of a receiver on Earth.

    GPS provides users with their latitude and longitude, as well as their altitude and exact time. It’s important to note that GPS satellites do not send any information directly to a receiver. Instead, the receivers calculate how far they are away from the satellites, and when they get the signal from at least four, they can calculate its coordinates and altitude on Earth.

    GPS GPS satellite in San Diego StudySmarterFig. 1 - A never-launched GPS satellite on display in San Diego

    The overall GPS system can be split into three segments: the space segment (satellites), the control segment (monitoring stations), and the user segment (receiver).

    Types of GPS

    GPS receivers can take different forms depending on who is using them and for what purpose:


    Chances are you’ve used GPS in one form or another, either through a smartphone, handheld device, or one integrated into a car. GPS devices for personal use are meant to be used by the general public for things like navigating to a destination or helping locate themselves. GPS devices for personal use are the most common type of receiver and are used around the world.


    As opposed to personal GPS devices, commercial ones are used by companies and businesses. There might not be much practical difference between personal and commercial devices, but oftentimes there is more integration with other systems. For example, a delivery company may use GPS to help track its vehicles, and it can be used in combination with the computer system they use to track where items were delivered.


    GPS was originally developed by the US military for its own use but began to open to public use during the 1980s. GPS is still used by the US military and allies today for guiding weapons and tracking vehicles. In fact, the US military has access to a more precise and accurate version of GPS and can even limit GPS access to other countries in times of conflict.

    Uses of GPS

    Now that we’ve gone over some of the types of GPS, let’s go in-depth on some major uses of GPS.


    Being able to know your location on Earth is the most fundamental purpose of GPS and while it seems simple, geolocating can be very useful to all sorts of industries. GPS is used to track things like weather balloons, farm equipment, and even animals for wildlife research. Geolocating via GPS can also save people’s lives. If someone ends up in an emergency situation in a remote area, GPS beacons notify authorities of someone’s location and they can be rescued.

    GPS Handheld GPS StudySmarterFig. 2 - Handheld GPS receiver

    You may have personally used GPS to track a lost smartphone or find out where you are. The logistics industry also relies upon GPS to track vehicles like planes, trucks, and trains to ensure they are all getting to their destinations on time and efficiently.


    Functioning in tandem with map software, GPS enables users to navigate in real-time. Being able to type in a location and get the exact directions from where you are with updates during the journey is not just convenient for getting to your friend’s house, but also crucial to maritime shipping and emergency response. GPS helps eliminate human error in using traditional methods like a map and compass, but maps have to be up to date as well for GPS navigation to be most accurate.

    Surveying and Cartography

    The science of taking measurements of the earth’s surface is called surveying. Surveying has been around for centuries and was fundamental for cartography. While surveying today is still used for creating maps, it’s more commonly used in construction projects, where satellite imaging and remote sensing are unable to be as precise as needed for the projects. With the advent of GPS, surveying has become more streamlined and accurate, allowing surveyors to know exactly where they are and calibrate their equipment.

    Geocaching is a popular activity that has come about since GPS became public. Geocaching involves using GPS devices to hide and seek out special containers called caches. Websites list coordinates of where caches are hidden, usually in natural areas, and people seek them out. Inside the containers are typically a variety of small gifts, and the seeker can take a gift so long as they also put one back for the next seeker to find.

    Importance of GPS in Geography

    Because it is a geographical tool, it’s no surprise that GPS is important to the field of geography. Let’s discuss some of the importance of GPS in geography next.


    Being able to accurately locate and illustrate the Earth’s physical features is fundamental to geography. Everything from the peaks of mountains to the lowest point of a valley has a coordinate, and GPS enables that coordinate to be accurately accounted for. The more accurately the Earth’s features can be mapped, the more precise geographical research can be.

    Review the article on geographic information systems, or GIS to learn more about how GPS is fundamental to geographic data and analysis.

    Physical Geography

    GPS is also fundamental to physical geography studies. Physical geography is the subset of Geography that studies changes and patterns in the Earth’s environment. This includes things like studying glacial movements, how coastlines change over time, and the distribution of the Earth’s species. GPS is incredibly useful for identifying changes over time.

    GPS Vulture with GPS tracker StudySmarterFig. 3 - Griffon vulture with GPS tracking antenna

    A biogeographer studying an animal’s migration can use GPS receivers attached to the animals to track where they go. The ability of GPS receivers to measure elevation means they can pick up subtle changes in the Earth’s surface over time.

    Human Geography

    In terms of human geography, GPS is useful for undertaking research in transportation and social geography. GPS data on where personal vehicles go can help inform urban planners and transportation geographers of ways to better improve road networks and traffic signals. In terms of sociology, researchers might use GPS data from cell phones to get an idea of where people go and what places are important to the social fabric of an area.

    Disadvantages of GPS

    Now that we’ve discussed how GPS is a useful tool, let’s go into some disadvantages of GPS.

    Special Equipment and Software Required

    GPS is available to anyone worldwide, but a receiver is needed to use it. Receivers can vary in cost and dependability. While this isn’t much of an issue for things like research projects, it could be a problem if in a survival situation and a GPS-capable device breaks or runs out of battery. For a GPS device to be most useful, it’s integrated with some sort of software like a map application. Most basic navigation apps are free, but to fully take advantage of GPS for something like tracking delivery vehicles, more costly software is needed.

    Privacy and Surveillance

    Using GPS features on a phone can be helpful to find where you are or somewhere to eat nearby. However, who has access to those data is a concern of privacy advocates. Apps and companies use GPS data to target advertising and those data could end up in places the user never intended. There are also worries about the ability of governments to monitor citizens using GPS and potentially violating their rights in the process. While GPS is an incredibly useful tool, it's also brought about surveillance capabilities and privacy concerns like never before.

    Limits on Civilian Usage

    Because GPS is owned and operated by the United States Space Force, there are limits on its usability to the general public and, by extension, other countries’ militaries. The US military has access to a more precise version of GPS, and also doesn’t allow GPS to be used above 60,000 feet or for vehicles traveling more than 1,000 miles per hour. While this does deter the usage of GPS for weapons, it also limits its effectiveness for some research situations, especially for aerospace engineering and meteorology.

    GPS - Key takeaways

    • GPS is a system of satellites that can identify a user’s coordinates on Earth and altitude through the use of a device called a receiver.
    • GPS is critical to navigation systems and plays an outsized role in modern mapping and geographic research.
    • GPS is limited by the need for special equipment and some of its uses are curtailed by the US government.


    1. Fig. 2: Handheld GPS receiver ( by Paul Downey ( is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about GPS

    What are the 3 types of GPS?

    The 3 types of GPS are:

    • Personal GPS

    • Commercial GPS

    • Military GPS

    What are 5 GPS Applications?

    5 GPS applications are:

    • Locating

    • Surveying

    • Navigating

    • Aiding physical geography research

    • Geocaching

    Is GNSS better than GPS?

    GNSS is the acronym for global navigation satellite system. GPS is considered a GNSS as are several other systems like the European Union’s Galileo system. Because some detailed information surrounding different GNSS is classified, it’s difficult for an independent analysis to determine which system is the best.

    What are the 3 components of GPS?

    The 3 components of GPS are the space segment, user segment, and control segment. The space segment is the 31 operational satellites that beam signals to Earth. The control segment consists of the people and computers that monitor and control the satellites. Finally, the user segment consists of the GPS receiver on Earth.

    What are the advantages and disadvantages of GPS?

    The advantages of GPS are its ability to accurately and precisely find a receiver’s location on Earth. This is extremely useful for navigating, surveying, and doing a variety of geographic research. The disadvantages of GPS are that special equipment and software are necessary for it to be useful, and some of its use is limited by the US government.

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