How GPS works

How GPS works

For years now, you have been using GPS technology every day: when you are in the car and set a route on your satellite navigator, when you have to find a road in Google Maps or, much more simply. When you place something on Facebook, keeping active the recognition of the geographical position. But have you ever wondered how GPS works and how it can always (or almost) detect the right position of a person or object? If the answer is yes and you are looking for more information on this extraordinary technology, know that you have come to the right place at the right time!

Below, I will take you into the world of GPS, providing you with all the information you need to fully understand the functioning of this system, which, by now, accompanies us every day in our work and play activities. I will explain, therefore, the meaning of the abbreviation GPS, I will mention the history of this technology, and then I will get to the heart of the matter by giving you some technical details on this technology and explaining how to use it on smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Do not worry. You do not need to be an aerospace engineer or have high-level computer skills to understand everything: you will only need a few minutes of free time (the necessary to read this study carefully) and, I assure you, at the end of the reading you will have everything very clear. That said, I just have to wish you happy reading and enjoy it!

What is GPS

Before going into the matter and explaining how GPS works. It is good to start by explaining what this term means:  GPS is the acronym for  Global Positioning System, and it is a  positioning system based on satellites in orbit, capable of providing the exact location and time to any device equipped with a dedicated receiver. It works at any time and regardless of weather conditions. To be more precise, the complete definition of this positioning system is  NAVSTAR GPS, i.e., Navigation Satellite Timing And Ranging Global Positioning System.

The GPS system, designed by the United States Department of Defense, was born in 1973 as a successor to the Transit system to offer the possibility for military vehicles to orient themselves in space (and in time) in any position and any weather condition. Only in 1991, however, the United States decided to open the use of GPS also to civilians. Still, with some limitations (which did not concern military use): for security reasons, the signal sent by satellites was “altered” purposely from a particular mechanism, decreasing the order of precision of the detection of civil receivers – the detection error could go up to  950 meters concerning its original position.

In 2000 these limitations were abolished, making the detection for civil use much more precise: the detection by GPS, to date, guarantees the accuracy of  10 or 20 meters compared to the real position. Certainly, a nice leap forward compared to what happened in the past.

Below I illustrate them all.
  • Space segment – this is the constellation of satellites placed in the Earth’s orbit. In total, 31 artificial satellites orbit around the earth (24 are active, others become it in case of need) arranged on six distinct planes.
  • Control segment – this is the combination of the eight satellite control stations (7 operational and one “reserve”), scattered in strategic points on Earth, together with the four terrestrial antennas capable of sending each satellite the necessary updates over time. The staff inside the control stations takes care of the complete management of the satellites, signals, and services.
  • User segment – this segment is nothing but the set of GPS receivers on our planet, both military and civilian. Typically, a receiver consists of a small processor to process operations, a GPS antenna and a source of time, useful for carrying out the synchronization operation (I will talk about it shortly).
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The detection of the position via GPS is based on the principle of trilateration: using the radio signals generated by three satellites and the distance of the Earth from each of them. The receiver, thanks to the travel time of the three signals, is able to calculate the point of the planet in which it is located, with a fairly high precision margin. Reproducing it if necessary on a digital map (as I explained before, the SPS location has an error less than 20 meters compared to the real position).

What GPS is used for

If you have carefully read what I have told you so far, you have certainly understood the ultimate goal of GPS. This system can locate any object equipped with a receiver at any point on Earth and at any time, regardless of weather conditions.

A tiny processor and a sort of clock capable of picking up the satellite signal and detecting, with the rules I have explained to you a little while ago—the terrestrial coordinates of its position and possibly reporting them on a  map thanks to specific systems, programs or apps.

With the passage of time and the evolution of technology. It has become possible to take advantage of many categories of devices to take advantage of this technology: here are some of them.


  • Car navigators – these are devices generally designed for navigation only via GPS technology. They are equipped with a screen, a processor. RAM memory and a GPS chip (as well as optional components such as Bluetooth, battery, WiFi, etc.), and can show entire customizable travel itineraries. As well as the current position, using maps of nations or entire continents, which can be downloaded as needed. If you need a navigator. I suggest you refer to my dedicated buying guide.
  • GPS tracker – these are real “locators,” equipped with a GPS chip. Interfacing with specific computer programs or smartphone apps and Tablet. Others are so small that they are almost invisible. You can find a wide choice by consulting my guide to the best GPS Trackers.
  • Smartphones, tablets, and computers – for some time now. These commonly used devices have been equipped with a GPS chip that can be activated or deactivated as needed and used. Through dedicated programs or apps for multiple purposes ( “transforming” devices into satellite navigators or to locate them when they are lost or stolen, just to mention two common scenarios). However, it is possible to take advantage of the location services by making use of the Internet connection. Combining the IP address obtained by the machine with the position of the nearest server.

How to use GPS

Now that you have learned the basics of how GPS works. The time has come to practice and activate the location systems on your smartphone. Tablet or computer: below, I will explain how to activate and use GPS on devices Android. On iPhone and iPad and on the computer.

Before continuing, however, I want to clarify that the location services can be used by the programs and apps that request them.

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Do you have a terminal with the Android operating system? Don’t worry, activating GPS is very simple. You can do it both using the notification area and the specific panel in the settings.


So, to activate the GPS almost immediately on Android. Call the notification area on your smartphone or tablet. You are swiping from the top of the screen downwards. Touch the GPS icon  (or  Location, depending on the operating system) present in the panel that opens, when it lights up. The GPS is active and available for the apps and services that want to use it.

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Can’t find the GPS icon in the Android notification area? Don’t worry; you can also do the same through the system menus. First, touch the Settings icon located on the screen of the apps installed on your device. Then scroll until you find the Personal section and touch the Geolocation item.

In some customized versions of Android, for example, the MIUI of  Xiaomi, the procedure may change slightly: in this case, you have to open the  Android Settings, go to the System & Device section and, from there, touch the  Additional Settings,  Privacy and  Geolocation items, then move on on the switch at the voice access to my location.

From the same panel, you can also activate the high-precision location services (I’ll talk about it shortly). Check the apps that have recently accessed the location services. It wasn’t difficult, was it?


Do you have an iPhone or iPad? Don’t worry, turning GPS on or off is very simple! First, tap the Resident Settings icon on the main screen of your device and select the  Privacy and  Location items from the menu that opens.

Now, to “turn on” the GPS. Activate the switch located at the top right. From the same panel. You can enable or disable location sharing via system apps. Revoke access permission to apps installed on the device.


Until now, I have told you about how to activate GPS on smartphones and tablets. Before explaining how? However, I must make an important clarification. The WiFi connection or possibly the connection via cellular modem (e.g., e.g., using the ” 4G Internet keys “).

Having made this necessary premise. It’s time to take action. Suppose you use Windows 10 and want to activate GPS on your PC.  Suppose you don’t see the icon in question. Click on the Expand all items, and you should see it appear.

If instead, you have a Mac, activate localization in this way. Click on the System Preferences icon located on the Dock. Then on the Security and Privacy icon and on the Privacy section,  located at the top right.

At this point, unlock the changes by clicking on the padlock button at the bottom left. Enter your password, press the Unlock button, and affix the checkmark on Enable “Location services.” Through the same screen. You can view all the programs that have requested and obtained access to the position.

How to improve GPS signal reception

In this study, I have mentioned several times how GPS localization is possible anywhere on Earth, at any time and regardless of weather conditions. However, since GPS receivers rely on a satellite signal. Reception is not always optimal and, in some cases. It may take longer to obtain an acceptable result.

  • Eliminate obstacles – to get the best signal from satellites. It is good that there are no “obstacles” between the “source” (the sky) and the receiver. Consequently, I advise you to use GPS by pointing the device straight to the sky. Preferably outdoors and in the absence of elements such as ceilings, partitions, or other.
  • High precision location services – if GPS alone cannot provide you with a very precise location. You can take advantage of the “high precision” location. Which also takes advantage of information received from WiFi, a cellular connection, and Bluetooth. To activate it on Android, go to Settings> Geolocation. Tap on the Mode item and set the checkmark on the item  High precision. This step is not necessary on iOS, where “high precision” services are active by default.

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