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So much of our world relies on the positioning and navigation capability of what is commonly known as GPS, yet many do not know what the acronym stands for, how it came to be, or who owns the actual system. You may have also heard of GNSS, which brings another layer of complexity to understanding satellite systems and their use for determining position. So what’s the difference between GPS and GNSS?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System and was created and owned by the United States Department of Defense to use satellite radio signals to determine position anywhere in the world. To understand GPS, we must first take a look at how it came to be.The original specifications were finally completed in 1973, the first satellites were launched in 1978, and the system was deemed operational in 1983. However, the name GPS only applies to the navigation system created by the United States. To learn more about the origin of GPS and how it’s evolved, visit our History of GPS blog post.

GNSS, on the other hand, stands for Global Navigation Satellite System, and is a navigational network of satellite constellations created by various nations for their own specific use. You can think of GNSS as the umbrella term for all satellite navigation networks found around the world. GPS is similar to a name brand, like Kleenex™, while GNSS encompasses facial tissues as a whole. Russia’s network is called GLONASS, China’s the BeiDou system, and Europe’s is Galileo. Japan and India are also on deck for installing their own networks. Overall, each system is part of GNSS, yet each brings unique capabilities to the positional receiver world. 

Why is it important that we know the difference between GPS and GNSS? Depending on where your device is made, a different chipset is used to receive signals from a specific GNSS system. Most devices will by default receive the United States system (GPS), but more are being configured to also accept signals from GLONASS, Galileo, and BeiDou. As the technology has advanced and more channels of radio reception are built into devices, more accurate locations can now be obtained with the additional data. In the early days of GPS, less than 20 satellites were orbiting the Earth, so planning was critical for radio reception when five or more satellites were accessible for a specific period. There are now over 100 satellites crisscrossing the sky to receive signals from (depending on the complexity of your receiver) and determine with higher accuracy and precision your location.

Today, we rely on satellite navigation more than ever. From our cell phones and cars to our fitness trackers and logistics operations, we use this technology much more than the original scientists could have imagined. Spatial data has become the oxygen and everything relies on it. Our lives have implemented GPS technology into many aspects to make even the simplest of tasks more efficient. GNSS receivers help gather and monitor that data so we immediately make decisions that affect our lives. Continued advancement of GPS in conjunction with the overall GNSS provides great promise in helping improve our lives in ways we haven’t even considered... considering it is all based upon radio signals from metal birds circling in the sky above us.