Learn more about the most commonly used navigation tools.
Today we have the benefit of navigation technology to help us find new locations. Whether you’re sailing across the Atlantic or just looking to walk to the nearest Italian restaurant, accurate and convenient navigation tools are essential to keep you on track and arrive safely.
Let’s take a look at the many types of navigation technology invented in the past 100 years. Trust us — we’ll go beyond reading the stars and using a magnetic compass to find your way.
Some of these methods — like GPS — allow the user to easily pinpoint their location on a map. Others — like radar — rely on identifying surrounding objects to help users determine their location in relation to their surroundings.
By far the navigation technology with the biggest impact on the world is GPS, the Global Positioning System. It determines an object’s position using a satellite network as it orbits around the planet.
It works using specific time signals sent through radio waves from a user’s device to available satellites. This gives a clear picture of the object’s speed, location, altitude, and even direction.
The U.S. Department of Defense created the satellite system known as Navstar, but it’s free for everyone to use. The majority of smartphones and smartwatches now have in-built GPS systems. They’re compatible with specific apps — such as Google Maps — for easy navigation almost anywhere.
Examples of satellite-based navigation systems around the world include: GPS (U.S.), GLONASS (Russian), BeiDou (China), Galileo (Europe), NavIC (India), and QZSS (Japan)
Radio has been used since the 1930s for a variety of tasks. It has the potential to reach across long distances using only a transmitter and a receiver to decode the incoming waves. This navigation technology is used on everything from ships and planes to long-haul trucks.
Radios can broadcast at different frequencies, both high and low, to achieve different results and was first experimented with in defensive applications during World War II. Ships use radio to maintain contact with the mainland even when they’re miles out to sea.
Examples of radio navigation include: Radio Direction Finding (RDF), Reverse RDF, Non-Directional Beacons (NDB), Automatic Direction Finder (ADF), and VHF Omnidirectional range.
Radar works by bouncing microwaves off solid objects and return to create an image. Typically, it’s used in a variety of ways, such as assessing the position, size, and motion of a target. An object could be a submarine in the ocean or another airplane flying nearby. It can even detect small objects like missiles, fish, and birds.
Radar is also used from terrestrial towers or with satellites to determine weather patterns. This technology can clearly see bands of cloud carrying rain from above to provide accurate weather forecasts days in advance.
Systems using radar for navigation include: Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (ARPA), Automatic Tracking Aid, Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), Anti-Missile Systems, and Aircraft Anti-Collision Systems.
Acoustic navigation uses sound waves to create an image of the user’s surroundings. Sound waves can travel through solids, liquids, and gases.
Similar to radar, acoustic navigation involves sending out a signal that returns to its origin point. This provides a clear picture on how to navigate a particular area.
In water, this is called sonar imaging. It can detect large objects like submarines and whales.
Sonar uses triangulation where three or more readings are used to give the user an accurate location.
A few examples of acoustic navigation systems include: Echo Sounder, Super Short Base Line (SSBL), Hydrophones, and High Precision Acoustic Positioning Systems (HiPAPs)
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