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Speaker pinpoints GPS impact


Greg Milner is an author and journalist whose writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Guardian, Slate, Salon, Wired, Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Ars Technica, Spin, Blender, The New York Sun and The Sunday Times of London. Milner spoke to Airmen at Schriever Air Force Base about his new-found appreciation for the impact GPS has made through research for his book, “Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds.” (Courtesy Photo)


Since humans first walked the earth, they gazed up at the stars, drawing different interpretations across a variety of cultures.

Some saw spiritual symbols, others animals, some prophecies. In Polynesian culture, they served a special purpose - as a way to understand where one was in the oceans.  Using the stars and their alignment over islands as a point of reference, they invented a complex system to ascertain their position.

Fortunately, thanks to the Air Force and locally, the 2nd Space Operations Squadron’s work through GPS, humans have access to a service that can guide them to any part of the world – ocean or not. The importance of a point of reference cannot be understated, Greg Milner explained during his speech in the Building 300 auditorium Sept. 13 - as part of the National Security Space Institute speaker series.

Before the speech, Milner toured 2 SOPS’ GPS Master Control Station, describing it as ‘one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world.”

“2 SOPS was very excited to have the opportunity to host Mr. Milner in our GPS Master Control Station,” said Lt. Col. David Wilson, 2 SOPS director of operations. “We were all very impressed with his operational understanding of how our mission positively impacts users worldwide.”

The author and journalist, who has been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek and other venues - shared his insight on the importance of GPS, and its variety of uses - from anticipating drought by measuring the part of GPS signal that bounces off the ground, to indicating the amount of volcanic ash in the air; by measuring the signal’s slowdown through the atmosphere.

“Before I wrote this book, I had no real idea what GPS really was, I thought it was a catch-all term for navigation technology,” Milner said. “ What I found was GPS has become such a big part of our  world so fast that we haven’t reflected enough on what effect GPS has had on us, both on a macro level, as a part of all critical infrastructure, but also on a personal level as to where we are in the world.”

He highlighted how GPS is responsible for booming markets and new mediums, such as precision agriculture and fleet management.

“One of the most fascinating things I learned when reading about GPS was precision agriculture,” Milner said. “Whenever I tell people some of the food they eat today was grown because of GPS, they are always surprised. I’ve talked to farmers who said GPS and precision agriculture has changed their lives because if they know exactly, to the millimeter, where to put the seed and can map the field, it adds up to savings. What GPS has shown us is there’s power in knowing where anything in the world is.”

Besides economic impacts, Milner pointed out how GPS made social impacts as well. As an example, Milner discussed fleet management in one industrial zone around Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey.

“In 2010 people were testing a new GPS-based landing system in Newark,” he said. “They were finding that it was failing several times of day at a certain time. They found out what was happening was there were so many people with GPS jammers that it was effecting the landing system.

“You have an airport on one side with people using GPS to land planes, and then you have people using GPS to build a cloud around themselves so their bosses’ won’t know where they were,” he continued. “That’s how flexible GPS is, there are so many things you can do with it - for good or bad.”

Milner explained how GPS and point-of-reference affects operations, including navigating Mars-bound spacecraft.

“They (NASA) used Earth like they were looking through a rear view mirror,” Milner said. “By always looking back it shows how that home based point-of-reference system stays with us.”

He pointed how GPS’s full military potential was realized at the onset of the Gulf War, where it was used to track enemy movements, among other means.

“The Gulf War seemed to be the moment many people realized how big GPS can be,” he said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that GPS is one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, Operation Desert Storm was so successful.”

Milner attributed these findings to the copious amounts of research conducted for his book “Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds.” He reflected in his speech, through his research, he has garnered a new appreciation for GPS’s importance, and learned the different ways it impacts nearly every facet of our lives.

“I’m constantly surprised, I don’t even think we reached the limit in all the ways GPS can be used,” he said. “Ultimately it gives us a whole new outlook on the world.”

Milner extended gratitude to the hard work of 2 SOPS and all Schriever Airmen throughout the base, supporting the 50th Space Wing and the space medium and taking navigation to new intuitive heights – similar to what the Polynesians did hundreds of years ago.

“You guys do some of the most important jobs in the world, and you do it largely unsung,” he said. “GPS is a gift to the world, it’s truly an incredible system.”

2 SOPS personnel expressed gratitude as well.

“We're very pleased to know that Mr. Milner continues to advocate for increased awareness of ways that GPS can enhance people's everyday lives,” Wilson said. “His insightful discussions with the on-duty operators were both thoughtful and entertaining.”

You can find the video of Milner's speech here

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