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New Company Founded to Develop Centimeter-Accurate GPS

Video: Centimeter-level GPS used in a virtual reality headset (University of Texas, Austin)

6 May 2015. An engineering lab at University of Texas in Austin designed a low-cost portable global positioning system with precision to a few centimeters, and started a company to take the technology to market. A team from UT-Austin’s Radionavigation Laboratory, led by engineering professor Todd Humphreys, designed the technology, which they believe can be used in virtual reality, drone navigation, mapping, agriculture, and collision-avoidance systems in cars.

The team points out that current GPS devices in cars and smartphones are accurate to 2-3 meters. Higher performance and more accurate GPS systems — to millimeter accuracy — are also available for surveying and agriculture, but those systems designed for commercial applications are large and expensive.

Humphreys and colleagues outlined their discoveries in February in the trade publication GPS World, and at a meeting in September 2014 of the Institute of Navigation. The researchers are focusing on improving the reception of signals from global navigation satellites, which in current consumer devices depends on antennas that they describe as “little better than smashed paperclips.”

Todd Humphreys

Todd Humphreys (University of Texas, Austin)

Their solution is a new type of receiver software that extracts and analyzes the satellite signals for carrier phase measurements, the range between a satellite and receiver expressed in units of cycles of the carrier frequency. The software currently runs on a device added on to a smartphone that uses the existing antenna and doesn’t interfere with the phone’s built-in circuitry. The team tested the add-on device against reference measurements made by commercial-grade GPS systems, showing a smartphone with the add-on device is able to calculate locations within a few centimeters, about the size of a nickel.

Humphreys and three graduate students working on the project founded Radiosense LLC that licensed the geopositioning technology from the university. While commercial applications of the technology for the company are already known, still missing is more of a mass-market application, the so-called killer app.

That more widespread application may be virtual or augmented reality, where greater positioning precision can get gamers off the couch and out in the open air to engage their opponents. “Imagine games where, rather than sit in front of a monitor and play, you are in your backyard actually running around with other players,” says Humphreys in a university statement. “To be able to do this type of outdoor, multiplayer virtual reality game, you need highly accurate position and orientation that is tied to a global reference frame.” The video at top demonstrates its use in a virtual reality headset.

The developers say Radiosense is working with smartphone maker Samsung to create an attachment for virtual reality applications, which is providing funding for the Radionavigation Lab’s research. But they also believe the device can be used in vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems to prevent collisions. “If your car knows in real time the precise position and velocity of an approaching car that is blocked from view by other traffic,” notes Humphreys,  “your car can plan ahead to avoid a collision.”

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