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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Monitoring the Entire Planet

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is awash in obsolete nuclear bombs, mothballed battleships and surplus military bases, but out of the scrap heaps left by the Cold War has come a technology with a promising payoff. When the Defense Department laid plans in the 1970s for its Global Positioning System, or GPS, a network of 24 satellites that broadcasts navigation signals to users on Earth, it was intended to help soldiers fight anywhere, from jungles to deserts. Along the way, though, commercial interests saw a potentially lucrative concept that could revolutionize industries such as land surveying, trucking, environmental protection and farming. The technology, now poised to leap into virtually every facet of the American economy, is expected to create a $5 to $10 billion industry by the end of this decade and more than 100,000 jobs. With a special receiver that taps the satellite signals, civilian users can determine their position by latitude and longitude within 100 meters anywhere in the world. Once as big as a filing cabinet, the receivers are now the size of a paperback book and still shrinking. Consumer models, used by wilderness backpackers, cost as little as $500. Some visionaries anticipate the day when virtually everything that moves in U.S. society will contain a microchip that will track and, in many cases, report its location. Massive computer systems, they say, will tie together the movement of assets in the economy, providing a sophisticated information system for the status and location of goods. The federal government set the stage for this commercial growth merely by guaranteeing civilian access. In one of his lesser-known but farsighted decisions, President Ronald Reagan decreed in 1983 that the system would be free to the public, rejecting calls for a cumbersome toll system. The navigation system is among a handful of advanced military technologies -- ranging from spy satellites to plastic composite materials -- that have potential for commercial development. Yet, whereas defense conversion in general remains uncertain, GPS is clearly the best example of military technology moving to the marketplace. "Communications satellites were the first great success in space, but GPS is going to dwarf that," said Albert Wheelon, a former Hughes Aircraft chairman and an early pioneer in commercial space. "GPS is going to pervade everything we do." The satellite navigation system was expected to have civilian applications, but the market has turned upward dramatically in the last two years as costs have declined, according to Stephen Colwell, president of a consulting firm in Sunnyvale, California. By later this year, a satellite receiver may be boiled down to just three computer chips costing about $100 per set; eventually, the price will drop below $50, Colwell said. At that point, GPS would be inserted into a lot of other electronic gear, such as cellular telephones that could instantly alert police to an individual's location. "There are a million deals going on," Colwell said. "It is seldom you see a new technology coming on so rapidly." Indeed, use of the system is expanding quickly. Computerized maps are being used to track the spread of disease, pollution and crime, based on data collected from GPS systems. Hamburger chains pore over these kinds of computer-generated maps to spot the best sites for new franchises. Interstate truckers use the system to keep tabs of their road taxes. Commercial fishermen use the system to return to fertile fishing holes. It has led to important advances in the study of earthquakes, allowing geologists to measure in inches how far temblors move land masses. Cities use the satellite system to dispatch emergency vehicles and track the location of passenger buses. Railroads are finally able to figure out where their trains are. "Every month, every week, there is somebody who comes up with a unique new way to use this," said Jules McNeff, the Pentagon's key technical and policy expert on GPS. "Its uses will be limited only by people's imagination."