Op-ed | GPS Offers Lessons for the Infrastructure of Tomorrow


With the Senate’s passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last month, lawmakers are on the cusp of bringing long awaited funding to modernize our nation’s infrastructure. These investments, which include funding for roads and bridges, as well as broadband, electric vehicles, and transit, are sorely needed and will provide a strong base to grow the U.S. economy and modernize our nation’s infrastructure.

Many have remarked that this infrastructure package looks very different than those proposed in past decades. This is for good reason. Today’s transportation, agriculture, and construction for example are all connected by a common underlying feature: reliance on advanced technology which enhances efficiency and sustainability. The next iteration of smart infrastructure will also be technology based – including geospatial data, analytics and data, IoT tech, and AI – and it’s imperative that government leads on investments in these critical technologies. 

The Global Positioning System (GPS) represents the epitome of smart government investment. Originally developed to support U.S. military operations, GPS has evolved into one of the most widely used technologies of our time, touching nearly every aspect of society’s infrastructure from aviation and rail, to wireless broadband and the electric grid. In fact, GPS technology will play a prominent role in the deployment of infrastructure outlined in the legislative package, including mapping locations for electric vehicle (EV) chargers, enabling safer, more efficient operation of construction vehicles, and providing the precise timing needed to bring wireless broadband to unserved and underserved communities, just to name a few. 

Though the GPS system is sustained using public dollars (approximately $1.7 billion annually), it offers a platform that has unlocked the creativity of the private sector, resulting in an estimated $1 billion per day in economic benefits for the U.S. economy. Today, some of the more innovative uses of GPS are those that work together with other emerging technologies, thereby enabling smarter, more efficient functionality.

Take precision agriculture, for example, which for the past two decades has used GPS data to allow farmers to map their fields and more precisely guide their equipment, thereby leading to more efficient food production and greater environmental sustainability. Now, paired with improvements in wireless broadband, AI, and cloud computing, precision agriculture is entering the next phase of innovation. GPS-guided tractors and combines with centimeter-level accuracy have become more sophisticated by analyzing data gathered in the field and creating soil/yield mapping systems that save farmers time and money. Variable rate technology (VRT) systems can use data from sensors or GPS to vary the application of seeds, fertilizer and pesticides based on historical data, reducing waste of critical inputs. Irrigation also improves with systems that map fields and curve rows so that rainwater can be directed for natural irrigation, decreasing water usage by four percent, with the potential to decrease water usage an additional 21 percent through greater adoption.

The construction of roads, bridges, and buildings is another area of infrastructure that has benefited greatly from accurate, reliable, and resilient GPS. The painstaking and time-consuming process of gathering measurements for planning, design, and construction that has been used for generations is increasingly being replaced with digital construction technologies, including GPS, that increase machine productivity, reduce rework, and can lower project delivery costs by as much as 30 percent. Recognizing these benefits, the Senate-passed infrastructure package provides $20 million to accelerate the implementation and deployment of advanced digital construction management systems. GPSIA applauds congressional leaders for adopting this provision, which demonstrates what is possible when we “scale up” the use of existing technology and focus on enabling the infrastructure of tomorrow.

As Congress considers additional investment opportunities, including the reconciliation process and upcoming appropriations bills, GPSIA encourages more of these forward-thinking investments — investments in the technologies of tomorrow — that will be imperative to creating a more efficient and sustainable society for years to come. 

David Grossman is executive director of the GPS Innovation Alliance.