Motorcycle Navigation: GPS Block 3—The Future of GPS Navigation

Aug 11, 2017 View Comments by

In previous articles, I covered the past and present state of global navigation satellite systems, or GNSS. Now may be a good time to look at the future of GNSS, particularly at GPS.

On July 17, 1995, the United States’ GPS satellite constellation reached full operational capability, evolving from a 1960s design for pure military application into a dual-purpose system that serves civilian applications. Little more than 20 years later and nearly all residents of planet Earth have free and unlimited access to GPS satellite navigation, either with a standalone device or a smartphone. This is a remarkable achievement for GPS, as it has proven to be a globally disruptive, game-changing technology that has affected many aspects of life: travel, aviation, and commerce, to name a few.

In February 2016, another milestone was achieved. The 19-story-tall Atlas V rocket marked the end of an era as it carried the last Block 2F GPS satellites into space. The GPS constellation, starting with original Block 1 design in 1974, has been continuously upgraded and improved over the years. Block 2F was the final upgrade to the aging system.

Initially, the U.S. government had a Selective Availability (SA) feature that intentionally degraded public GPS signals to protect against usage by adversaries. Ironically, the feature achieved the opposite effect, as other superpowers were reluctant to rely on GPS availability and U.S. policies and therefore started developing their own GNSS. The European Union, Russia, and China designed Galileo, GLONASS, and Compass, respectively. The SA feature was terminated in May 2000 by President Bill Clinton, as it had become irrelevant.

However, even with the tremendous success of GPS Block 2, there are still some issues that need to be resolved; specifically, accuracy, availability, interoperability with other GNSS, and support for new requirements.

To address these concerns, Congress decided in 2000 to replace the GPS Block 2 constellation with a new design, named GPS Block 3. These satellites will be a leap forward instead of yet another upgrade, and will remain fully compatible with existing GPS Block 2 receivers.

Increased Accuracy
For civilians, GPS horizontal positioning is accurate to within 16 feet, but that’s under optimal clear-sky conditions. Often the actual accuracy is much worse when near buildings or trees and can drop to 300 feet. The ground-based Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), developed by the Federal Aviation Administration, increases GPS accuracy by broadcasting radio signals, but not all GPS devices support it and it only functions in the U.S. In contrast, Galileo’s accuracy is expected to be within three feet for public service and less than half an inch for high-accuracy encrypted commercial service. GPS Block 3 will offer three times better accuracy than Block 2F.

GPS Block 3

Improved Availability
Urban area usage has grown exponentially. Originally GPS was designed to assist with aerial and naval navigation, but inside dense cities the current signal at ground level is not strong enough and leads to significant errors and the inability for GPS receivers to lock on a position. Even worse, GPS reception can be easily disrupted, either unintentionally by local radio stations or intentionally by jamming signals. The Block 3 solution is designed to increase the signal power emitted by GPS satellites to reach deeper into streets and buildings and overcome obstacles or other jamming signals.

GPS has global coverage but it is not uniform. Some areas in the world—for example, the northern tip of Europe—have insufficient coverage. Interoperating with other GNSS will increase global coverage and availability. That’s why Block 3 will interoperate with the EU’s Galileo. A receiver that can read the same standard messages over multiple GNSS can provide increased accuracy and quicker locking time and redundancy. If a certain constellation has issues—imagine GPS going down for some reason—then the receiver will still be able to use the other GNSS constellations. For critical applications, this redundancy is very important.

The Future
What’s in this for us traveling motorcyclists?

GPS Block 3 brings many benefits. Stronger signals will allow navigation in forests, dense urban areas with high-rise buildings, or steep canyons. GPS locking time, the period when a device tries to initially acquire the signals, will be greatly reduced. Loss of reception due to jamming will be diminished. The cross-platform compatibility with other GNSS should allow travel to virtually any point on the planet while continuously getting full coverage. Accuracy is always a good thing to have, eliminating missed exits and riding in the wrong lane. For adventure riders, who ride off-road and in remote areas, high accuracy and availability could make a big difference in decreasing the chances of entering dangerous zones or following an incorrect trail.

GPS Block 3 has seen some significant delays but will probably become operational in the next few years. As an intermediate solution, until full GNSS interoperability is achieved, we can expect multi-GNSS capable devices, similar to how smartphones come with multiband support to work with different carriers. Garmin’s Montana 680 models already have dual support for GLONASS and GPS. Expect a new generation of devices and smartphones marketed as supporting GPS Block 3.

At the same time, motorcycles will gain more electronics—powerful on-board computers with advanced operating systems and colorful touch screens that can display digital maps and other applications. Motorcycles follow automotive technology with a decade gap or so, and cars already have these features, plus an embedded GPS receiver. It is just a matter of time until the modern GNSS receiver becomes part of the motorcycle as OEM, and when this happens it will likely support GPS Block 3 out of the box.

Text: Yuval Naveh
Photography:, USAF, NASA/Tony Gray and Don Kight


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