GPS Enabled Personal Devices Aren’t as Accurate as We Think

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If there’s one thing a student loves, it’s a good field trip. Or so students from the geosciences department of Austin Peay State University hoped. A group of them took to the North Carolina country forests to do research in the field, their primary objective to study rock formations of interest and note the latitude and longitude of each. All of them did their work manually with utmost care except for one Maurice Testa who decided to use the GPS tracking app on his smart phone to record what should have been accurate coordinate information.


But Those Coordinates Weren’t Precise

Not by a long shot. The app he was using was pretty standard for the aim of the field study research; it allows users to mark different types of rock formations on a map via GPS technology. It wasn’t until Testa reviewed the data on his computer after the fact that he discovered the glaring problem with the app: the coordinates were off-base by multiple meters. The map showed his coordinates to be on a highway, when in reality he hadn’t been even nearly close to one—rendering his study worthless.


The Problem Isn’t Just with Some Applications

Actually, it appears most standard issue, electronically tracked personal devices are relatively inaccurate when it comes to GPS pinpointing. That’s what further research shows when Testa and a group of three other like-minded students, supported and tool-equipped by the university itself, started out to discover the truth.


They used apps that relied on the GPS tracking from a variety of different smart technology devices (tablet PCs, smart phones, etc.), particularly apps that are scientific in purpose, to find out the accuracy of the devices’ recorded data. Come to find out, some professors of the university, in the individual areas of computer science, geography, and mathematics, were conducting a similar experiment. The professors teamed up with Testa and his group, advised them on an improved system of research, and helped the students to attain access to thirteen GPS tracking devices owned and operated by the university to compare data alongside the personal devices.


In a national park of the Land Between the Lakes, selected because of its lack of cell phone towers (thereby forcing all GPS tracking devices to rely only on the orbiting satellites for triangulation), they tested their hypothesis. The students then used Nashville, Tenn., with cell towers to compare. The findings? The iPhone was the most inaccurate device of all with an average error margin of 46 meters off from each coordinate; the other personal ones weren’t much better.


The students and faculty are hoping to use the findings as part of research on solving the coordinate discrepancies, especially where emergency response departments (who rely on precise locations) are concerned.

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Janice Grover

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