GEOG 160
Mapping Our Changing World

5.3 GPS Error Sources


Try this thought experiment (Wormley, 2004): Attach your GPS receiver to a tripod. Turn it on and record its position every ten minutes for 24 hours. Next day, plot the 144 coordinates your receiver calculated. What do you suppose the plot would look like?

Do you imagine a cloud of points scattered around the actual location? That's a reasonable expectation. Now, imagine drawing a circle or ellipse that encompasses about 95 percent of the points. What would the radius of that circle or ellipse be? (In other words, what is your receiver's positioning error?)

The answer depends in part on your receiver. If you used a very low cost GPS receiver, the radius of the circle you drew might be as much as ten meters to capture 95 percent of the points. If you used a slightly more expensive WAAS-enabled single frequency receiver, your error ellipse might shrink to one to three meters or so (WAAS makes use of both the satellite signals and a network of ground reference stations to increase accuracy; for more on WAAS, see the FAA WAAS site). But, if you were to invest several thousand dollars in a dual frequency, survey-grade receiver, your error circle radius might be as small as a centimeter or less. In general, GPS users get what they pay for.

As the market for GPS positioning grows, receivers are becoming cheaper. Still, there are lots of mapping applications for which it's not practical to use a survey-grade unit. For example, if your assignment was to GPS 1,000 manholes for your municipality, you probably wouldn't want to set up and calibrate a survey-grade receiver 1,000 times. How, then, can you minimize errors associated with mapping-grade receivers? A sensible start is to understand the sources of GPS error.

5.3.1 User Equivalent Range Errors

User Equivalent Range Errors (UERE) are those that relate to the timing and path readings of the satellites due to anomalies in the hardware or interference from the atmosphere. A complete list of the sources of User Equivalent Range Errors, in descending order of their contributions to the total error budget, is below:

  1. Satellite clock: GPS position calculations, as discussed above, depend on measuring signal transmission time from satellite to receiver; this, in turn, depends on knowing the time on both ends. NAVSTAR satellites use atomic clocks, which are very accurate but can drift up to a millisecond (enough to make an accuracy difference). These errors are minimized by calculating clock corrections (at monitoring stations) and transmitting the corrections along with the GPS signal to appropriately outfitted GPS receivers.
  2. Upper atmosphere (ionosphere): As GPS signals pass through the upper atmosphere (the ionosphere 50-1000km above the surface), signals are delayed and deflected. The ionosphere density varies; thus, signals are delayed more in some places than others. The delay also depends on how close the satellite is to being overhead (where distance that the signal travels through the ionosphere is least). By modeling ionosphere characteristics, GPS monitoring stations can calculate and transmit corrections to the satellites, which in turn pass these corrections along to receivers. Only about three-quarters of the bias can be removed, however, leaving the ionosphere as the second largest contributor to the GPS error budget.
  3. Receiver clock: GPS receivers are equipped with quartz crystal clocks that are less stable than the atomic clocks used in NAVSTAR satellites. Receiver clock error can be eliminated, however, by comparing times of arrival of signals from two satellites (whose transmission times are known exactly).
  4. Satellite orbit: GPS receivers calculate coordinates relative to the known locations of satellites in space, a complex task that involves knowing the shapes of satellite orbits as well as their velocities, neither of which is constant. The GPS Control Segment monitors satellite locations at all times, calculates orbit eccentricities, and compiles these deviations in documents called ephemerides. An ephemeris is compiled for each satellite and broadcast with the satellite signal. GPS receivers that are able to process ephemerides can compensate for some orbital errors.
  5. Lower atmosphere: The three lower layers of atmosphere (troposphere, tropopause, and stratosphere) extend from the Earth’s surface to an altitude of about 50 km. The lower atmosphere delays GPS signals, adding slightly to the calculated distances between satellites and receivers. Signals from satellites close to the horizon are delayed the most, since they pass through the most atmosphere.
  6. Multipath: Ideally, GPS signals travel from satellites through the atmosphere directly to GPS receivers. In reality, GPS receivers must discriminate between signals received directly from satellites and other signals that have been reflected from surrounding objects, such as buildings, trees, and even the ground. Antennas are designed to minimize interference from signals reflected from below, but signals reflected from above are more difficult to eliminate. One technique for minimizing multipath errors is to track only those satellites that are at least 15° above the horizon, a threshold called the "mask angle."

Multipath errors are particularly common in urban or woody environments, especially those with large valleys or mountainous terrain, and are one of the primary reasons why GPS works poorly or not at all in large buildings, underground, or on narrow city streets that have tall buildings on both sides. If you have ever been geocaching, hiking, or exploring and noticed poor GPS service while in dense forests, you were experiencing multipath errors.

5.3.2 Dilution of Precision

The arrangement of satellites in the sky also affects the accuracy of GPS positioning. The ideal arrangement (of the minimum four satellites) is one satellite directly overhead, three others equally spaced nearer the horizon (but above the mask angle). Imagine a vast umbrella that encompasses most of the sky, where the satellites form the tip and the ends of the umbrella spines.

GPS coordinates calculated when satellites are clustered close together in the sky suffer from dilution of precision(DOP), a factor that multiplies the uncertainty associated with User Equivalent Range Errors (UERE - errors associated with satellite and receiver clocks, the atmosphere, satellite orbits, and the environmental conditions that lead to multipath errors). The calculation of DOP results in values that range from 1 (the best case, which does not magnify UERE) to more than 20 (in which case, there is so much error the data should not be used). According to Van Sickle (2001), the lowest DOP encountered in practice is about 2, which doubles the uncertainty associated with UERE.

GPS receivers report several components of DOP, including Horizontal Dilution of Precision (HDOP) and Vertical Dilution of Precision (VDOP). The combination of these two components of the three-dimensional position is called PDOP - position dilution of precision. A key element of GPS mission planning is to identify the time of day when PDOP is minimized. Since satellite orbits are known, PDOP can be predicted for a given time and location. Professional surveyors use a variety of software products to determine the best conditions for GPS work.