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GNSS for the Masses

Innovation the first link of the mass-market value chain

Glen Gibbons

Before we get swept away by all the geocaching and friend-finding and child-tracking, let’s take another look at that value chain leading to the mass market.

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Oh, yes, to be sure — they are really impressive numbers: the steep upward curve of unit and dollar (or euro or ruble or renminbi) sales volumes now that GNSS has hit the big time.

Whether it’s $25 billion today or $68 billion in 2010, the worldwide market has really taken off since consumers have discovered — almost by accident, in many cases — the amazing power of GNSS-driven products and services.

Ah, consumers. The mass market.

Rich! We’ll all be rich beyond our wildest imaginings!

Sometimes this new-found excitement about size brings to mind the character played by Danny DeVito in the movie “Twins,” who is told what will be paid for some stolen property that he has accidentally gotten hold of.

“Five million dollars,” his says in disbelief. “Five million dollars.”

Only we’re talking billions here. Even if we’re not exactly sure how many billions, because everybody seems to count the GNSS value-add differently.

At a certain point the situation becomes like the chain of restaurants that used to post its cumulative total of hamburger sales on the outlet signs. Eventually, the company just started saying, “Billions and billions served.” But before we get swept away by all the geocaching and friend-finding and child-tracking, let’s take another look at that value chain leading to the mass market.

Fabrication technology delivers some amazing results — no question about it. But the distinctive value of GNSS is not to be discovered in the foundries of Taiwan or China. Rather, it arises from the imaginations and hard work of engineers and signal designers around the world.

Last time I checked, silicon, germanium, etc. were still inorganic substances. But it’s the organic life-forms – more, the intelligence behind the life-forms — that brings the engineering value to GNSS consumer products. It’s not how fine you etch the lines on ever-thinner slices of silicon; more important are the algorithms that drive the electrons along those circuits.

In other words, silicon is the clay, not the potter.

As Intel has pointed out for years, it’s what goes in before the plastic goes on that makes the difference in a product. Better algorithms mean reduced instruction sets, which mean fewer gates, smaller components, and lower bills of materials. Only then do the GUIs and LCDs begin to make sense.

So, if silicon isn’t really where the value lies, where is it? Fundamentally, we can trace that value chain back to signal processing and software. Software for applications, and signal processing with which to define and drive the products.

Behind the signal processing, of course, lie the signals themselves. That’s where the digital gold rush truly begins. And the world’s providers of GNSS signals are opening up the mine fields.

GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, and probably Compass are bringing dozens (if you count the data and pilot channels separately) of new and better signals to the marketplace, particularly in those portions of the RF spectrum favored by designers of consumer products.

That means before we can get to the glitz and glamour of retail GNSS — the concept stores, the lovely models laden with PNDs — engineers will have to pass through new labyrinths: the equations, the computations, the schematics, the bench tests, the field trials, the prototypes, and all the rest.

Yes, it’s true. GNSS is now for the masses. And yet, before the tabulation must come the innovation.


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