The Sky’s the Limit

Some 11,000 miles above the earth, 28 satellites beam down data that enables the targeting of locations with once-unthinkable precision. It’s a lethal tool in war — and a killer app for business. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is transforming everything from auto insurance to agriculture, from hauling freight to trading stocks. Is your business next?

I am riding in the “buddy seat” of a big, red Case farm tractor, a 2001 model with tires almost as tall as me. The cab is air-conditioned, of course, a big bubble of glass. Don Glenn is at the helm, and a 45-foot spraying boom is floating behind us, laying down a mist of herbicide. Out in all directions spreads a field of very young corn, just little sprouts six inches tall.


Don and his brother, Brian, call this field F-11 — Flower Hill 11, 49.5 acres in north central Alabama, a quarter mile south of the twisting Tennessee River, west of Decatur. It’s not quite isolated — there’s a Boeing rocket plant just down the road — but it’s rural enough that there’s no cable TV.

We are bouncing through this field, a small square of the land that the Glenn brothers farm, under the gentle guidance of eight or nine satellites that are 11,000 miles overhead. Because Don is the quiet brother, I have a little bit of time to consider the implications of this. One thing is quickly clear: Although the brothers have nearly 40 years of farming experience between them, their daddy is close at hand to advise them, and they still are using some equipment that their granddaddy made by hand, Don and Brian are learning things about this land from those orbiting satellites that they could not know any other way — things that fly in the face of 3,000 years of farming wisdom. In six years, the Glenn brothers have become so convinced of the value of the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites as a farming tool that they would no sooner give them up than they would give up their tractors or their combine.

Even more astonishing is that, out here in this field (N 34? 40.497′, W 87? 8.933′, eight satellites reporting, to an accuracy of 1 foot), we know where on Earth we are more precisely than human beings have at any other time in history. Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Francis Drake, Lewis and Clark — if they knew where they were within 50 miles during their great explorations, they were lucky. In this tractor cab, I know my location with 250,000 times more accuracy than that — to less than a foot. The positioning is so precise, in fact, that in the adjacent wheat field, the Glenns use GPS to steer their tractors so that the 19-inch-wide tires follow exactly the same tire tracks each time that they work the field. “Controlled traffic patterns,” Don calls it.


The implications of knowing where you are with this kind of accuracy — of knowing where anything is, where everything is, with this kind of relentless precision — are only just becoming clear, and they are staggering. Think back to the early days of microprocessors. People imagined all kinds of uses for the new devices, but was anyone talking about putting chips in car transmissions? Or in birthday cards? Or in implantable, automatic cardiac resuscitators? GPS will be like that — a genuinely transformational technology.

As with so many big-bang technologies, war first brought GPS to the popular imagination: initially in the 1991 Gulf War, and this year in Iraq. The U.S. military uses the constellation of GPS satellites that it put in orbit to deliver bombs, missiles, and even individual artillery shells to targets with the exactitude of a FedEx package. War planners can literally pick which doorway — front or back? — to fly a bomb to.

As impressive as such a performance is, it’s just an extension of what GPS was always intended to do: provide guidance and position information to the military. What’s remarkable is how quickly commercial and civilian applications of GPS have outstripped military uses. In 10 years, GPS has quietly become an indispensable tool across the U.S. economy. Truckers use it, of course, as do fishermen, hikers, and surveyors. But so do the terrestrial- and cellular-phone networks. Power companies and farmers use GPS, as do archaeologists, the Buffalo Bills, police departments, school districts, and concrete companies. NASA uses GPS to navigate spacecraft, construction firms use it to navigate bulldozers, and several big seaports use it to guide robotic cranes that load and unload shipping containers. Wall Street banks and brokerage houses depend on the satellites more than they depend on CNBC.


And the technology is just taking hold. It’s predicted that, in 2003, just as many GPS devices of all kinds will be produced as in the previous 25 years that the satellites have been in orbit — and that, in 2004, the number of devices will double again.

Four days after riding the tractor at the Glenns’ Alabama farm, I am sitting in a sunlit office in Silicon Valley — GPS coordinates unavailable because the signals couldn’t penetrate the windows — when the equivocal nature of this future world becomes evident. I am egging on an executive in a GPS conglomerate, a man who thinks about position, location, and satellites all day, trying to get him to tell me how “location awareness” is going to change the world the way that, say, electricity did. He’s holding back. He wants to tell me how important it is for concrete companies to know where their trucks are. I can tell he’s had bigger thoughts.

He lets down his guard all at once. “Imagine,” he says, “the end of property crime. Everything that has any value and could be stolen — a car, a laptop, a piece of construction equipment” (not to mention every ship, plane, truck trailer, and toddler) — “everything like that will know its location and be able to report it. We can go even further: You tell your laptop that it should only find itself at your office or your home. And if it finds itself in a car trunk, it wakes up, notices that it’s in the wrong place, calls your cell phone, and says, ‘Hi, this is your laptop. I’m at this location on this map you see. Is that okay?’ “


Then the executive goes one step further. He starts talking about insurance companies selling you auto insurance based on how you actually use your car, say, a month at a time. They review the GPS information on where you’ve driven, how far, to what areas of town, and how fast (speeding, eh?) and bill you for the risks that you’re taking. Progressive Insurance has in fact done a trial using just such a system in Texas.

The GPS executive’s eyes are sparkling at the prospect of reduced car-insurance rates. I’m thinking, Holy mackerel. The insurance company will have records of everywhere I drive and how fast I drive there. Not even my wife knows that.

“If You Took Away My GPS, I’d Be in a World of Pain”

It’s a little past noon in the utterly ordinary offices of a space-age trucking company called Con-Way NOW. This is the sort of place that regular people never even suspect exists. When companies need something big moved quickly, they call an outfit like Con-Way NOW, a unit of transportation giant CNF, which operates 41,000 trucks, tractors, and trailers.


Con-Way NOW, just seven years old, is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan (N 42? 12.964′, W 83? 43.983′, elevation 914 feet above sea level, 6 satellites reporting, to an accuracy of 18′). With only about 350 trucks, it is still a tiny part of CNF. The whole operation is built around a simple guarantee: When you call Con-Way NOW and book a shipment, that shipment will arrive at the time promised, whether it’s going across the state or across three time zones. In the trucking business, it’s called “time-definite delivery.” If the shipment is more than two hours late, it’s half price. If it’s more than four hours late, it’s free. GPS makes the whole thing possible. Con-Way NOW knows where every truck is, all the time. Not roughly where every truck is, but where every truck is to within less than one-tenth of a mile. When an order comes in, a dispatcher punches a computer function labeled FIND NEAREST, and a list of trucks comes up, displaying a full array of detailed information on the status of each of them.

If a truck is running more than 15 minutes late, or if a truck strays off route by more than 200 feet, a satellite system provided by Qualcomm notices and sends dispatchers an alert. Con-Way NOW says that it has only had to compensate customers for late shipments on less than 1% of orders.

Amy Burgess, a customer coordinator at Con-Way NOW, takes a call. “Amy, this is Brenda,” says a breathless woman. “I’ve got a very hot expedited shipment that needs to be in Pennsylvania tomorrow.” Brenda rat-a-tat-tats out the details: a 158-pound item on a single skid. Yes, it will fit in a cargo van. “It’ll be ready for pickup before 3:30,” Brenda says. “It needs to arrive ASAP tomorrow.”


Amy’s computer reports the distance from Horton, Michigan to Hazleton, Pennsylvania — 546 miles. That’s 12 hours, 8 minutes driving time, according to the computer. Amy puts Brenda on hold and consults a dispatcher, Marissa. Marissa has a cargo van that will be able to pick up in Horton at 3:30 PM. Delivery time? How’s 4 AM for ASAP? Total cost for the ride: more than $800.

Brenda doesn’t have a contact at the destination, but she books the shipment and promises to call back with the contact information. Before Brenda can call back, Amy has found the Pennsylvania company on the Internet, run a credit check, talked to a man at the company named John, and been told that a 4 AM delivery is a bit too ASAP. “Seven-thirty will be fine,” John says. “That’s when receiving opens.”

Within 15 minutes of Brenda’s initial call, everything is done. The driver has received the job and confirmed his acceptance and his pay (roughly $450 for driving all night) — all messages bounced back and forth off of birds in orbit. Amy has called the shipping company back. The final thing she says, at half past noon, with the quiet confidence of an air-traffic controller: “Brenda, that truck is 67 miles out. Less than two hours.” She could even have told Brenda the van’s speed.


“If you took away my GPS,” says Michelle Potter, Con-Way NOW’s vice president of operations, “I’d be in a world of pain.” This service might not be feasible at all without GPS.

In some ways, though, what’s most remarkable about the way that Con-Way NOW operates is its gritty utilitarianism. There is no wall-sized status board showing where all of the trucks are. The computer displays are dense menus of text. And yet, anytime a staffer or a customer wants to know exactly where a truck is, a Con-Way NOW customer-service rep can actually “ping” the truck as if it were a jet or a submarine. The truck reports back time, date, map location, latitude and longitude, speed, direction, and, if desired, a whole raft of other information: the driver’s name, the load being hauled, the ultimate destination, the distance out, the estimated time of arrival.

GPS — location — is really just the occasion for a link between truck and company that is constantly being exploited in ways that are unexpected. Truck drivers, all independents who have exclusive contracts to drive for Con-Way NOW, can actually have part of their pay zapped to special cash cards as soon as they pick up a load. That way, the costs of moving the load can be paid by the load itself. Confirmation of pay disbursement, naturally, bounces from Ann Arbor, off of the satellites in orbit, and back to a display mounted in the truck.


“This business is not about the cost of moving something,” says Chris Hance, a regional sales manager who just spent three years as a regional account executive for Con-Way NOW. “It’s about the opportunity cost of not getting it there when you need it.” When the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, Con-Way NOW moved the merchandise for the celebration. The company has moved the wheel from Wheel of Fortune, and it also routinely handles equipment for the military, medical supplies, newspaper inserts that are time sensitive, and, most often, auto parts, the kind of equipment that keeps an assembly line up and running. Ford books an average of 1,000 such shipments of auto parts each month.

To a big manufacturer, spending a few thousand dollars to move equipment is nothing compared with letting an assembly line sit idle at a cost of $100,000 an hour. “We are Big Brother,” says Hance. “That’s what we are selling to our customers. They always know where the shipment is. We’ve got what it takes to let them sleep at night.”

We Have Hung Our Own Stars in the Sky

My Garmin handheld GPS unit has the comfortable heft of a cell phone. When I turn it on, the opening screen shows this message: “TRACKING SATELLITES.” As soon as the Garmin finds the satellites, it does three things at once: It reports my latitude (north-south position) and longitude (east-west position), to three decimal places. It reports the accuracy of its own measurement. And it puts on screen a circular map that shows the relative positions of all of the “visible” GPS satellites in the sky above me. The satellites look like tiny Star Wars ships. It’s a thrill to look down at that map of the satellites and then up at the sky, to hold a device that locks on to eight satellites at once, does the math, and tells me my exact location on the earth. (Office location: N 35? 47.234′, W 78? 38.800′, four satellites tracking, 36′ accuracy.)


People have been looking to the sky for navigational guidance ever since they built boats and started venturing out of sight of land. Christopher Columbus, the navigators of U.S. Navy vessels from the Civil War, and merchant seamen after World War II would have easily understood many of one another’s navigational tools: devices that measured the positions of the sun and stars in the sky, and charts and tables that helped to interpret what those positions meant.

The sun and stars have limitations as navigational aids: They are passive, they don’t communicate very much information, and they are useless when blocked by clouds. The GPS satellites are a very sophisticated improvement on the stars: We have hung our own stars in the sky, better ones than we used to use. The operational GPS satellites are even referred to as “the constellation.”

The constellation, managed and maintained by the Air Force, needs at least 24 satellites to provide full coverage of every point on the earth, all the time. A minimum of three satellites is needed to calculate one position on the earth. Right now, there are 28 working GPS satellites, out of a total of roughly 750 satellites currently in military, civilian, and commercial use.


It’s easy to get confused about what GPS satellites do. They are, in many ways, just like stars, shining information down to Earth. The satellites don’t know where you are or where Con-Way NOW’s trucks are. They are, in fact, the opposite of spying devices. GPS satellites don’t gather data; they broadcast it. Each GPS satellite knows two things: its exact location in orbit and exactly what time it is. It knows its position within a few feet, while moving at 17,000 miles per hour. It knows the time within 100 picoseconds or so. How accurate is that? There are 1 trillion picoseconds in every second.

The GPS constellation orbits at about 10,988 miles above the earth. By comparison, the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle orbit at about 230 miles; the moon orbits at 239,000 miles. The two pieces of information that every GPS satellite beams down constantly — time and location — come out of the sky with the “brightness” of a 40-watt lightbulb. So my handheld GPS device is seeing the light of a 40-watt bulb from 11,000 miles away. All of the trigonometry — triangulating position using the satellite data — is done down here.

GPS signals are free to anyone, anywhere, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. The system has cost $9 billion to develop, launch, and sustain over 30 years; in the Iraqi war alone, it surely saved tens of millions of dollars in munitions costs. Today, the GPS industry in North America is estimated at $4 billion a year by Frost & Sullivan, driven in part by dramatic improvements in GPS technology on the ground. In the late 1980s, one of the first receivers to be developed was installed on Trident submarines. Two men had to carry it, and it had to be designed to fit through a submarine’s hatch. A typical handheld 15 years later is capable of far more, and the guts of even the most advanced GPS devices are the size of a postage stamp.


Dozens of companies are in the GPS business, from major household names like Boeing, Motorola, Qualcomm, Delphi, and Bosch, to smaller, GPS-centric companies like Trimble, Thales, and SiRF, to obscure companies like Symmetricom, which specializes in timing.

The U.S. government is fueling a GPS boom in one corner of the industry with the E911 mandate. By the end of 2005, all cell phones sold in the United States must be able to report their location automatically with great accuracy so that callers in trouble can be found by 911 operators. Many cell-phone manufacturers are meeting that requirement by putting GPS chips into their products. The phones will then be more-advanced versions of my Garmin handheld. My Garmin can tell me where I am — but if I don’t know the location of something that I need, or if I know exactly where I am but can’t tell anyone, I’m still lost.

The GPS-equipped cell phone will know where it is and be able to report that information. Great in an emergency, and incredibly useful if I need a bookstore in unfamiliar territory, or if I can’t find my hotel, or if I’m on a road trip and want to know whether I can make it to my destination with the gas that I have left. One can imagine all kinds of services that could be beamed to a location-aware cell phone. One can also imagine all kinds of marketing pitches beamed to a cell phone that is constantly reporting its location.


But the consumer-GPS sector is in its infancy compared with the commercial sector — and even that is just taking off. One of the oldest GPS companies, Trimble, in Sunnyvale, California, is a kind of IBM of GPS: making chips, selling devices, and offering services. Michael Lesyna, vice president of Trimble’s mobile-solutions division, is focusing on bringing a highly refined version of the tracking system that Con-Way NOW uses (provided by competitor Qualcomm) to all kinds of commercial truck fleets. Trimble has begun with the ready-mix concrete business, equipping cement mixers with GPS sensors and cell-phone data communicators.

What Trimble and others are quickly discovering is that GPS is what might be called a doorway technology. Once concrete companies know where their cement mixers are, “they want to know everything,” says Lesyna. “When the truck left the [cement] plant, when it arrived at the job site, how fast it went, when it started to pour concrete, when it finished pouring, when it left the job site, when it arrived back at the plant.”

Some of those questions — location? speed? — are related to GPS, and some just naturally arise once a company starts to ask questions. Trimble installs a battery of non-GPS-related sensors that measure everything from drum rotation to the amount of water added to the ready-mix concrete at the job site. Trimble’s technology also sets up a “geo-fence” — virtual fencing around cement plants or job sites that lets the concrete truck report when it enters or leaves a particular site. Because geo-fences are just coordinates in a computer program, they don’t require any additional work; Trimble can automatically geo-fence a customer’s site using the site’s address.

This kind of GPS and communications equipment — it costs about $2,900 per truck, plus $50 per truck per month — makes a vast array of data about a company’s truck fleet available. How long do trucks idle in the morning before being loaded? How long do they wait before being unloaded? Are the drivers driving safely? Are routes and job assignments efficient? Trimble’s system can reveal the route of every truck in the fleet for every minute of every day. All of the data is available instantly over the Internet.

Lesyna says that the ready-mix concrete business — with perhaps 80,000 trucks on the road — is just “the headpin market for this technology.” During a recent test with a garbage-hauling fleet, says Lesyna, a driver was discovered to be collecting trash from noncustomers — collecting garbage, and payment, on company time. What’s more, the garbage-hauling company paid to deposit that garbage at the landfill. “That kind of thing is not as uncommon as people would like to believe,” says Lesyna. “There are 40 million commercial vehicles in the United States, and almost every one of them could benefit from GPS in some form.”

A new vision for business

GPS is the kind of technology that people instantly see uses for in their own specialized worlds. Archaeologists working in remote jungle areas use it to return to sites that they discover. Tobacco buyers roaming rural North Carolina use it to locate farmers in areas where road signs are scarce. Geologists use centimeter-precision GPS devices to measure the movement of continental plates.

The GPS system is really a set of orbiting clocks; in fact, each satellite contains three or four atomic clocks. Many businesses use GPS not for location but for near-perfect time. The phone system depends on GPS for precise timing to move calls and data; Wall Street uses GPS time — cheap and universally agreed upon — to sequence and time-stamp trade orders.

Qualcomm, which supplies satellite tracking and messaging services to 300,000 trucks across North America, is testing GPS truck-trailer locks that would allow cargo to be unloaded only at the correct location. Qualcomm routinely fields inquiries from people wanting to use GPS in new ways. A plasma-screen TV manufacturer wanted to install GPS tracking in each screen as an antitheft measure. A cattle rancher wanted GPS collars for his cows. Two school districts in Pennsylvania with GPS-equipped buses offer families an alert when the school bus is approaching, a system dubbed “Here Comes the Bus.”

It’s hard not to marvel at the inventiveness of some of these applications. But in many ways, the adaptability and transformative power of GPS as a technology is most visible back at the farm of Don and Brian Glenn. The Glenn brothers — Don is taller and nerdier; Brian is younger and more garrulous — routinely finish each other’s sentences and steal each other’s punch lines, like a farming version of NPR’s Car Talk brothers. These days, both brothers have not only cell phones slung from their belts, but also iPAQs, which can be outfitted with GPS sensors and are loaded with mapping software and all of the data they need on crops, fields, and fertilizer.

For the Glenns, farming is such a razor’s-edge business that they now hire no outside labor at all. They do everything from the brain work to the scut work themselves. “We just work from can-go to can’t-go,” says Brian. GPS has literally changed the way that they see the land they farm. One of the first devices they used was a GPS-linked yield monitor, introduced to them by Auburn University agronomist Paul Mask. The monitor was installed on the combine, along with a GPS antenna. Once each second, the monitor recorded how much corn, beans, or wheat was being harvested and linked the yields with precise locations in the field. The result: a map showing which parts of the field produce best and which produce worst.

“The first thing we learned from the yield monitor was how many acres each of the fields was,” says Don, shaking his head. “You’d think we would’ve at least known that.”

“Before,” Brian says, “if Granddaddy said it was a 25-acre field, it was a 25-acre field. Then we go measure it with GPS, and we find out it’s really 26.3 acres. Doesn’t sound like much, except when you multiply it by 40 or 50 fields.” Not to mention over- and underapplying fertilizer, seed, and nutrients to the soil.

The yield monitor also showed in great detail which kinds of corn grew best in which soil. “We had a racehorse variety and a workhorse variety,” Don says. “Which do you plant where? In the past, we would have done some measuring, but we would have ended up making the decision on gut. With the yield monitor, we know the difference.”

“It’s a decision-making tool,” says Brian.

The Glenns can take their yield maps and plan fertilizer application. Fertilizer is applied by a GPS-guided tractor with a variable-rate sprayer — the iPAQ sits in a cradle, telling the fertilizer sprayer how much to spray and where to spray it, and keeping a record of everything.

The Glenns got another surprise. Matching the fertilizer map with the next year’s harvest map, they saw that weak areas of fields aren’t helped much by fertilizer. But strong areas produce even more strongly with extra fertilizer. “We’ve cut our nitrogen use by 10% to 12% in the last few years, with the same yields or better,” Don says.

“And that’s environmentally friendly,” says Brian.

“And we’ve saved $5,000 or $6,000 in nitrogen costs, just on corn,” Don says. With their iPAQs, the Glenns use GPS the same way that the concrete companies do. Data gathered during the day — automatically, instead of scribbled in notebooks — is loaded into computers at sundown. Don now keeps track of how much every seed and drop of pesticide costs for every field, as well as how much the harvest brings — and he can easily call up a P&L statement on his laptop for every field.

The Glenns even use GPS to steer the tractors with more care; because their fertilizer and herbicide applications overlap less, less is wasted. For the moment, they’ve managed to resist the hottest new GPS tool: tractors that steer themselves. The price is still too high, but the idea is appealing, because with an auto-steer tractor, they would be able to work at night.

Says Don: “I would hate to think I’d have to farm now without GPS.” Says Brian: “We’ve got friends who look at all the technology and say, ‘I can’t afford to do it.’ We can’t afford not to do it.”

What if the Pentagon had decided that, for the duration of the Iraqi war, it would turn off the civilian GPS signal (something that the military has never done or even suggested that it might do)? Brian just laughs. Says Don: “I’d have been on the phone right then to our senators.”

Charles Fishman ( is a Fast Company senior editor based at N 35? 47.234′, W 78? 38.800′.


About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.