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GPS-MEMS combo to enhance next-gen positioning and navigation

Posted: 23 May 2012     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:GPS  MEMS  3D compass 

Over the past decade, GPS positioning has transitioned from a specialised high-end technology, mostly used by professionals, to an application used by consumers on a daily basis. This transformation is the result of two generations of GPS-enabled devices that have commoditized GPS positioning in mass-market devices. This article looks at the next exciting stage in GPS evolution that solves the problems of non-availability of GPS location information—often when the user needs it most.

The first generation of devices that appeared in the early years of the past decade, consisted of aftermarket personal navigation devices (PNDs) which enabled turn-by-turn navigation at a price point that facilitated mass-market penetration. The next stage of the revolution was marked by the appearance of the smartphone. Smartphones today offer various positioning capabilities, and heavily rely on the GPS functionality for accurate positioning and turn-by-turn navigation applications. GPS-enabled smartphones not only extend turn-by-turn navigation applications to pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers, but offer positioning capability to any smartphone application, from local restaurant location to 'live' star maps and augmented reality. And beyond smartphones, low-cost positioning technology is appearing in other consumer products such as cameras for geotagging photographs. But the reach and scope of such applications could be significantly extended if the limitations of GPS performance in indoor and dense urban or forest environments could be overcome.

The appearance of the smartphone also led to changes not immediately visible to consumers. Two major trends are obvious when examining the shifts in the components that comprise modern handsets and smartphones. The first trend is the deployment of chips that converge several functions into a single integrated circuit (IC). Commonly referred to as "combo-chips", there are numerous combinations available today in the market including Wifi, Bluetooth and GPS. The other trend is the massive use of MEMS based sensors. Advances in MEMS technology in the past few years enabled implementation of multiple low-cost MEMS based sensors in the handset platform. For example, many smartphones today typically contain three motion sensors—a MEMS accelerometer, electronic compass and MEMS gyroscope—which, when used together, provide a means of accurately tracking the linear and angular position, velocity and acceleration of the handset. Until now, MEMS sensors were typically stand-alone chips (ICs), each performing a single function, but the future trend will be convergence and integration of motion sensors into a single package, together with sufficient processing capability to intelligently combine data from the individual sensors and provide meaningful motion vectors directly to the application.

The use of MEMS sensors enables mobile handset platforms, for the first time, to measure parameters that are related to the platform position and movement in the real world. Such types of measurements are often referred to as "inertial measurements". The use of inertial measurements (or INS—inertial navigation systems) is well-known and established in the world of GPS and radio-navigation. Inertial navigation is often used to improve radio-navigation or complement it in environments where radio navigation is hard or impossible. Examples for such situations in GPS receivers are dense-urban areas, underground or indoor locations.

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