Every so often the government sponsors inventions such as the Internet that revolutionize how we conduct our business, protect our national security and fight our nation’s wars. GPS established more than a generation ago, is one such invention. It has delivered quantum leaps in precision navigation capabilities for our nation and users around the globe.

GPS ranks as one of those inventions where its value to society far exceeds its inventors’ expectations. It was originally developed and deployed to help guide cruise missiles and other weapons. Its designers never anticipated that individual soldiers in the heat of battle would rely on GPS satellites thousands of kilometers in space to help locate objectives at night or in unfamiliar territory. Moreover, while the system’s economic promise for mapmaking and air traffic control was initially recognized, few imagined that information from GPS satellites would be used to operate cell phones, help farmers plant crops, reduce accident response times for emergency service providers and improve weather forecasts. GPS provides a widening array of uses including navigation guidance for families in unfamiliar cities, “geocaching” treasure hunts for weekend adventurers, and accurate measurement of minute Earth movements within earthquake zones. With global annual sales well into the billions for systems and services, GPS is an incredible success story that highlights the tremendous economic impact derived from government innovation.

The continued modernization of the GPS enterprise – addressing the space, control and user segments – will further expand its application for national security and the general economy. Currently in procurement, the enterprise’s third generation will employ advanced technology to deliver greatly enhanced automated operations for the GPS satellite constellation. The result? We will have improved position determination, navigation and timing services for our armed services and civil users worldwide with the information assurance capabilities yielding superior system security, accuracy and reliability. Applications using these new capabilities will enhance our military’s overall situational awareness of battle space conditions and enable our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to move within a battle space, side by side with robotic instruments that improve force effectiveness. With new threats to our national security looming, as well as new opportunities to apply GPS technology to promote our economic vitality, it is imperative that we move forward with great dispatch on this vital system.

Key to improving GPS availability and accuracy of precision navigation and timing for all users will be the next-generation GPS Advanced Control Segment, or GPS OCX. In combination with new satellites, new user equipment (both military and commercial) and additional navigational signals, this program will significantly upgrade the GPS enterprise. GPS OCX will provide command, control and mission support for current and future GPS satellites by automating the most labor intensive procedures involved in the constellation’s operation. It will enable increased automation by enhancing proven Air Force satellite control software with evolving technological capabilities. With so many applications now fully dependent on precision navigation and timing, GPS OCX’s increased automation will improve constellation management by transitioning to an integrated operational capability with reduced duplication, improved interoperability and integrated functionality at all levels. This automation of the GPS control segment is the next logical step in operational evolution, as we continue to advance beyond procedural-based operations to those producing quicker, more responsive mission outcomes for warfighters and civilian users.

Significantly, greater automation will reduce GPS operations and sustainment costs, allowing users to better employ available talent. As reported by Space News last year [“Automated Ground System Allows Air Force to Reallocate Personnel,” March 24, 2008, page 18], the increased use of automated ground control systems enabled the Air Force’s 3rd Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base to achieve significant manpower savings when operating military communications satellites. Air Force Lt. Col. Brent McArthur, squadron commander, noted that by expanding automation, Air Force Space Command was able “to focus additional resources on pressing tasks like space surveillance, rather than routine satellite health checks that are analogous to checking the oil in a car.”

These advances in automation can be achieved without losing the operator control over the system that remains so necessary as mission requirements rapidly evolve. GPS automation represents a productivity enhancement because it allows the operator to assign the appropriate amount of automation dependent on operational need. The operator will be able to “go manual” when personal intervention is required, just as U.S. Airways pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger chose to take full control of his Airbus A320 to safely land 155 passengers and crew in the Hudson River on Jan. 15. This combination of operator control enhanced with selectable automated constellation operations will help to streamline satellite operations, enabling rapid adaptability to meet our warfighters‘ future needs, and continuously improving the GPS architecture.

Accurate navigation is at the very core of our cultural progress. It allowed humans to explore continents, travel in seagoing vessels and send spacecraft to the outer planets. GPS represents a revolutionary contribution by our technological society to the foundation of modern civilization. The third generation of the GPS enterprise holds enormous transformative promise, helping define how we will protect our nation and improve our lives as the 21st century unfolds. The GPS OCX Advanced Control Segment is at the center of this vision.

John Higginbotham is the chief executive officer of Integral Systems.