How the Global Positioning System keeps three businesses in proper orbit

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted March 01, 2000
by Deborah Cusa

At first it might sound like something from a sci-fi movie. Satellites located high above the atmosphere surveil the planet and transmit data back to Earth. It conjures up images from Star Wars and while it may be appropriate for high-tech military programs or multi-national corporate experiments, it is seemingly way beyond the reach of the average small business.

The reality is a little more down to Earth. The network of 24 satellites, known as the Global Positioning System, or more commonly as GPS, has become available for companies of all shapes and sizes.

The satellites work together to act as a navigational system for identifying specific points on Earth. GPS receivers, placed in any number of locations, communicate with the satellites and provide instantaneous, accurate measurements of everything from golf pin locations to corn stalk examinations.

Put into space by the United States Department of Defense in the 1970s, GPS was originally intended and used only for government purposes.

But since the end of the Cold War, mainstream civilian applications have quickly become apparent, and the applications are endless. Here's how GPS has changed the way three companies do business by improving their productivity and increasing the value of their property.

To the Tee

With near perfect weather all year round, a typical afternoon at the Glen Annie golf course in Goleta, Calif., includes blue skies, chirping birds, and a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands. Carts roll effortlessly around the well-kept 18-hole course as golfers ponder their next move while staring not at the pin, but at an LCD screen in their cart. Just another day on the green where patrons are accustomed to the high tech world of GPS.

The course uses the ParView system, a custom GPS application developed specifically for the golf industry. Richard Nahas, Glen Annie's director of sales and marketing, raves about ParView. "There are a lot of golf courses out there these days, you need something to give you a competitive edge," Nahas explains. "ParView is our edge, and our golfers love it."

Through an LCD screen mounted in their cart, golfers now have access to instant yardage reports, when they used to have to eyeball it from the nearest sprinkler. Golfers get distance information immediately from the cart to the center of the green, or where they are compared to surrounding hazards like sand traps. They can also see how far each of their tee shots go.

ParView also provides Glen Annie's customers with course maps, tips from the pro, automatic score keeping, and even food menus so meals are ready when they walk off the course.

In addition to customer satisfaction, the ParView system provides plenty of owner satisfaction. "The ParView system enables us to offer high-quality customer service," Nahas beams. "We can offer personalized services. When a golfer pulls in after the 9th hole, they are greeted by their name."

The system also speeds the pace of play, benefiting all parties. Golfers don't have hold ups and are happy. More people play per day, which means more money and therefore happy owners.

In addition, the system also helps the course with its maintenance tasks. The old analog method involved a marshal who would drive around the course checking for problems like broken sprinklers, while monitoring play at the same time. Now, if someone sees a problem, they can call it in immediately from the cart.

Another plus is the instant two-way communication between the pro shop and the carts. The pro shop has a radar screen behind the counter that plots the exact location of carts on the course. "If someone has a heart attack on the course, we know about it right away. A 911 button is built into the system," Nahas explains. Employees can also monitor everyone's progress so they know if the pace of play slows down. "If it does, we just message them to pick up the pace," says Nahas.

They can also send everyone, or just specific carts, sports scores, stock quotes ­ whatever a customer wants. So golfers can leave their Palm Pilots at home. Just another way for Nahas to personalize the experience for his customers. "The system is a bit pricey, but it is totally worth it. It more than pays for itself," Nahas concludes.

GPS has found a home on the ski slopes of America as well. In Vail, Colo., skiers can rent out fanny packs that contain lightweight satellite equipment and mapping software. The 5-ounce product, called a Sports Tracker, is sold by a company called MapTrek.

With the Sports Tracker, Vail mountain skiers can just relax and ski. They need not be concerned with where they skied or how fast they were going. A GPS receiver takes care of all the dirty work.

Kristin Yantis, communications manager at Vail Mountain explains, "We were kind of the guinea pig with this type of thing. MapTrek came to us last year and asked if we would offer their product. It sounded really neat, so we agreed."

The box acts as a receiver and communicates with GPS satellites, plotting the location of the skier onto a digital map. The information stays stored in the box until the skier returns, when it is printed out for them.

Skiers can then see exactly where and how fast they traveled during their trip. The skier receives either a static three-dimensional map or an interactive CD that outlines their entire ski adventure. This includes their speed, the actual ski runs traveled, and total miles skied.

"The most common question skiers are asked is 'where did you ski.' With this solution, our customers are able to leave with a souvenir that shows just that and more," Yantis says. "There has been an increased interest in our mountain since we began offering the GPS souvenir last year. It is new, different, and unique, so everyone wants to know what it is and how it works," Yantis says. "We aren't complaining."

Nick Fickling, who handles marketing at Minturn, Colo.-based MapTrek, says, "We can offer resorts a unique selling point. Other mountains offer customers photos and maps, but no one else can offer what we do. We allow resorts to personalize their skiing experience for their customers."

GPS has also made it to the agricultural world. Through a process known as precision farming (PF), farmers are able to analyze the characteristics of individual parts of fields, allowing them to manage their crops as efficiently as possible.

Tim Woods, an independent farmer in N.E. Arkansas, has been using GPS technology to grow rice, soy beans, wheat, and corn for the past five years. GPS technology has, as Woods states, "allowed me to really learn my land. It gives me a heightened awareness of what is going on."

There are several different approaches to PF. Wood's strategy was to establish the yield history of his fields first. "I needed to determine the strengths and weaknesses of my land. I wanted to know how many bushels per acre each area would produce." Now that he has done that, he can determine what changes he can make to generate a better yield.

PF gives farmers the ability to precisely monitor and assess an agricultural enterprise and to have sufficient understanding of the processes. While the technology is new, the practice of farming this way is not.Woods explains, "People have been "gridding" their fields ­ making a boundary, setting up a perimeter ­ and measuring within for a while. Technology just makes it far simpler."

As an experienced farmer, Woods was able to identify problems with his land, he just couldn't be precise. "Without GPS we couldn't come back to the same spots, we could guess but it wasn't always accurate."

Also, farmers didn't have the means to analyze the data until their harvest was completed. They were unable to get yield ratings at discrete points in the process or for specific parts of the field.

Now, with equipment from agricultural manufacturer Ag Leader Technology, it is possible. Woods carries his yield monitor box with him on the tractor, planters, and other pieces of machinery. The screen on the box displays information as it comes in and is processed. The yield monitor box houses the GPS receiver. The antenna he attaches to the piece of machinery he is using that day transmits data between the receiver and the GPS satellites.

The built-in software catalogs different modes that are selected depending upon the task at hand. Woods has his antenna set to pick up signals from the satellites every two seconds. The software creates a grid of the field; this process is known yield mapping. It is this data that will tell a farmer how much of a crop each field or piece of land will produce.

When attached to a tractor's combine, a monitor displays and records measurements such as moisture, combine speed, acres per hour, distance, wet bushels, dry bushels, and more. In addition, it organizes data by year, farm, field, grain, and load. Data can be transferred to a computer to print a summary of all fields. A memory card stores all of the information, which at the end of the day is transferred to a computer. GPS information requires a large amount of memory for storage, so the cards are necessary until the data can be downloaded.

Like other applications, the end results and benefits are a combination of the software (GIS) and hardware (GPS) working together. GPS technology allows Woods to be able to take multiple samples from one spot again and again to monitor the land and see what changes are occurring.

"Now I have more information than I know what to do with," says Woods. "It is a very complex but very beneficial process. I spend all winter poring over the information that came out the fields last harvest to really understand and make use of it."

While these uses of GPS may not resonate with your company's needs, the applications are truly endless. Companies of all sizes, shapes, and varieties are incorporating GPS into their business plans. Who knows, yours could be next.

How Does GPS Work?
Each satellite, strategically placed within an 11,000-mile orbit of each other, works together to act as a navigational system for identifying Earth locations.

Through a process called Triangulation, a GPS receiver locks onto and measures the signals of at least three (of the 24) different satellites to pinpoint its current location anywhere on Earth to within a few meters.

This satellite network operates 24 hours a day in all types of weather conditions, and is used worldwide for precise navigation on land, sea, and in the air.

GIS (Geographic Information System), otherwise known as mapping software, complements the GPS system. GIS is the foundation for most GPS-based business applications. Receivers are the hardware component that reads the coordinates, but it's the software applications that really change the way business processes are conducted.

GIS is used for a variety of applications including exploration, demographics, dispatching, and tracking.

Using satellites and aerial photography, the United States Geological Survey and other organizations have developed digital maps of most of the world. These maps are processed via software into images that are used for myriad calculations.

There are numerous beneficial business uses for mapping software alone. Once a GPS receiver is added to the mix, the possibilities are endless. The combination permits instantaneous and precise measurements that can be plotted and mapped out for any number of uses.

There are several GIS software programs like ESRI's BusinessMap Pro, MapInfo's MapInfo Professional, and Microsoft's MapPoint that look at existing markets and through the use of maps can identify where missed and new opportunities lie.

Out in the Fields or Hit the Slopes

Once only used by the government and considered "space-age technology," GPS has found a home in the business sector. Take a trip on to the World Wide Web and see if anyone makes a custom application for what you need. If not, contact a GIS or GPS manufacturer and they will most likely be able to put you in touch with a VAR who can create something for you. Just think about it . . .the possibilities are endless.

ParView
www.parview.com
This Sarasota, Fla.-based business manufactures, installs, and services a Course Management System for the golfing industry. ParView has 12 dedicated satellite tracking channels reserved for communication and optimum accuracy. The system receives satellite transmissions and displays the appropriate information (based upon the golfer's location on the course) on a large in-cart video display screen. Currently, 40 courses nationwide use ParView's system.

MapTrek
www.maptrek.com
They sell the Sports Tracker, a GPS recorder with mapping software built in. Currently, four resorts worldwide use the Sports Tracker.

Ag Leader Technology
www.agleader.com
They make a complete line of precision farming equipment.

Other sites for general GPS are:
* http://gps.faa.gov

* http://ares.redsword.com/gps

For some other "interesting" uses of GPS check out the following manufacturers:
* Trimble Navigation ltd.
www.trimble.com
They provide GPS Solutions for the film and video, agriculture, and construction industries, among others.

* DeLorme
www.delorme.com
They supply various GIS (software) applications.

XMap Business examines your customer base and helps determine new, expanded markets.

* Etak inc.
www.etak.com

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