Guide for the Perpetually loSt

This morning we visited the local Presbyterian Church, where a group of young people was leading the service, telling about their recent mission trip. One of their adult leaders told how grateful she was for Gladys, who kept her from getting lost as they went to their work assignments. I assumed Gladys was a local resident, who knew the roads well and rode with the group. No, Gladys turned out to be the new GPS system in the woman’s van.

I’ve been in a co-worker’s vehicle that was equipped with GPS, but I haven’t actually seen – or rather heard – it in action. My husband, who admits to being directionally challenged, would much appreciate such a navigational assistant. Next time we take a road trip, we will probably avail ourselves of the service provided by our wireless phone provider, on a pay-as-you-go basis.

I’ve heard about GPS for years, and had some idea of the technology behind it, but really never gave it much thought until Al and I explored the GPS exhibit at the Putnam Museum yesterday. The exhibit consists of a maze, with information along the way on GPS technology, plus hidden treasures to find and puzzles to solve.

As Al was more interested in finding treasures and getting through the maze than reading all the information along the way (plus we had a movie to get to – see yesterday’s post), I only picked up some of it myself. But I learned that, besides being used by travelers prone to getting lost, GPS is also used by search and rescue teams, farmers, and by the global geocaching community.

The maze we were in simulated geocaching, as we “took readings” at specified locations (getting our Adventure Card stamped with a number for each of four satellites) and hunting for hidden caches. Some caches contained hints to solve puzzles that would tell us the combination to open a locked door so we could continue through the maze.

Real world caches contain a log book in which each visitor can add an entry, and may contain items of some value. This makes it a real treasure hunt, but one rule of geocaching is that if you remove an item from a cache, you leave something of equal or greater value. If I had the opportunity to travel more, geocaching would be a very appealing activity.

At this website, hosted by the National Air and Space Museum, I learned more about the uses of GPS. Developed by the military, it was nevertheless intended from the beginning to have a range of civilian uses also. For instance, I have wondered for years, when I see surveyors, how their devices worked. I remember learning in second grade that George Washington had been a surveyor, and it seemed like a pretty complex task.

I still don’t know how Washington did it, but today’s surveyors only need to record GPS reading to determine their precise location. Not only property lines but the location of telephone poles, sewer lines, and fire hydrants can be easily and accurately recorded. I imagine that is also how they keep track of underground gas lines, cables, etc. so that when you need to dig, they can identify exactly what areas to avoid.

GPS is also used by scientists studying animals in the wild. (I learned yesterday that you can’t be tracked if you only have a GPS receiver, so the animals being tracked must be tagged with transmitters.) It is used by airplane pilots so they can fly directly to their destination rather than having to follow a sequence of land-based beacons. Even geologists and ecologists can more easily map the extent of whatever feature of the land they are studying.

As useful as GPS is, it’s good to still know low-tech techniques for finding your way around. I’m glad Cub Scouts still teaches boys how to use a map and compass. I’ve read sci-fi stories where people have come to depend so completely on talking computers that they no longer know how to read. Even apart from apocalyptic scenarios, there is always the possiblity of dead batteries, or of satellite signals being blocked by tall buildings or large rock formations nearby.

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