Space & Satellite Professionals International

The Orbiter: Satellites and Public Health
Prev Next

GPS: Looking Out For Public Health & Safety

By Johnathon Caldwell, Vice President for Navigation Systems, Lockheed Martin Space
Johnathon Caldwell

We sometimes take our critical national infrastructure for granted – we don’t think about power used to open garage doors, roads under our cars, or map apps getting us to new destinations.

While roads and electricity have “just been there” for generations, the Global Positioning System (GPS), provided today by the U.S. Space Force, has only “recently” become an essential part of our lives. However, since the 1990s, everything from personal healthcare to community disaster response has become dependent on the positioning, navigation and timing signals broadcast by today’s GPS satellite constellation.

Many of us remember when calling 9-1-1 also meant you had to describe your location, major cross street, color of the building . . . emergency service providers didn’t just “know” how to find someone. Today, when a medical emergency arises, responders can identify a caller’s exact location by positioning signals sent to the caller’s phone by a GPS satellite. For the blind or visually impaired, GPS-enabled apps help with navigation needs for walking, riding buses or taking private transport around town. Loved ones, particularly those prone to wandering and getting lost, such as the elderly with dementia and young children, can be tracked with wearable GPS-powered adornments.

Lockheed Martin satellite

Weather satellites, using GPS mapping technology to track storms and fires, are also helpful in finding lost hikers, stranded boaters, and individuals trapped in fire or flooding emergencies. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the satellites used for weather tracking are also part of a Global Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking System. These satellites use GPS technology to detect and locate distress signals on aircraft, boats and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs). NOAA reported that in 2019, 421 people were saved from potentially life-threatening situations in the United States and its surrounding waters because of the GPS technology on weather satellites.

GEO locating, based on collected information from GPS technology, is now used to alert entire communities of imminent emergencies. Known as the Wireless Emergency Alert system, it is considered an essential part of America’s Emergency Preparedness by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In fact, according to the FCC, since its launch in 2012, the WEA system has been used more than 49,000 times to warn the public and provide essential information including evacuation instructions, Amber Alerts, or shelter in place information during threatening weather or medical pandemics. The warnings are sent as alerts on compatible wireless devices and cell phones within a geographically targeted area defined by GPS technology.

Emerging technology continues to expand the use of GPS. Drones are using GPS signals to deliver medical supplies and food to war-torn or medically devastated areas. This is especially important when human aid is limited due to bad roads and conflict. In countries like Rwanda, drones use GPS guidance to deliver vaccines, blood products and injectables to remote communities. In 2011, the Fukashima nuclear disaster in Japan forced thousands of evacuees from the area. Five years later, residents began moving back to the area but were left with limited options to purchase food and other household items. Drones were used for deliver these essentials. This process of using drones with GPS guidance has expanded across the world and is growing in popularity – for its convenience and for the ability of drones to access otherwise inaccessible areas.

Today, we expect GPS to just “be there” – like roads and electricity. But when we stop to really consider GPS and the broader implications of this service, we realize it supports the overall health and safety of our communities – not just finding our special cup of coffee in the morning. It is really something worth investing in.

Lockheed Martin logo