Tag Archives: GPS

The Bulge is back: Three Sister volcano in Oregon triggers swelling but is unlikely to erupt

Using satellite images and GPS instruments, geophysicists monitoring the Three Sister volcanoes have found a subtle but noticeable uplift around 3 miles (5 km) away from the South Sister volcano. While researchers are now keeping a closer eye on it, they say this type of uplift has happened before and there’s no need to worry.

Image credits: USGS.

The Three Sisters are closely spaced volcanic peaks in Oregon, USA. They stand over 10,000 feet (3,000 m) in elevation, being the 4th, 5th, and 6th highest peaks in Oregon, respectively. But researchers are more interested in their volcanic activity.

While the North and Middle sisters haven’t erupted in the past 14,000 years (and it’s considered unlikely that they will erupt again), the South Sister last erupted 2,000 years ago, and could easily do so again at some point in the not-very-distant future. In the 1990s, researchers detected tectonic uplift around this volcano, prompting the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to closely monitor the area.

The USGS is now tracking developments around the South Sister using GPS networks and satellite data. Radar satellites can highlight areas of uplifting (where the surface is bulging) or downwelling (where the surface is moving downwards). Then, ground-based GPS measurements are used for more precise measurements. Although the current uplifting isn’t as fast as the maximum rate observed in 1999-2000, it is “distinctly faster” than the normal rate of uplift, the USGS says.

Image credits: USGS.

The uplift is believed to be caused by pulses of magma accumulating under the volcano, some 4 miles (7 km) below the surface. While magma accumulation is associated with volcanic activity, eruptions are generally preceded by other detectable signs — most importantly, lots of small earthquakes, but also ground deformation and geochemical changes. There seems to be no sign of any of that around the Three Sisters.

All in all, this suggests that the volcano is still active, but there are no signs of an impending eruption. The volcano’s alert level and color code remain at Normal / Green.

How the USGS is tracking activity around the Three Sisters. Credit: USGS.

The Three Sisters volcanoes formed in the Pleistocene and belonged to a volcanic area that was very active from around 650,000 and about 250,000 years ago. The South Sister is the youngest and tallest of the three volcanoes, and unlike its sisters, it has an uneroded summit crater about 0.25 mi (0.40 km), which hosts a lake (called the Teardrop Pool).

An eruption from the South Sister would pose a significant threat to nearby life, with geologists estimating a proximal zone of danger extending from 1.2 to 6.2 miles (2-10 km) around the volcano summit. How flows would run down the sides of the volcano, threatening everything in its path, and the nearby city of bends would be covered by tephra some 2 inches (5 cm) thick.

The Teardrop Pool on South Sister is the highest lake in Oregon. Image via Wiki Commons.

Urban seagulls know exactly when to strike to steal your food — we have the GPS data to prove it

Seagulls have become a common (and often unwanted) sight in urban areas. The birds are increasingly moving to cities for the abundant food, up to the point where chip-eating seagulls bothering city dwellers has become a fairly common occurrence. According to a new study, seagulls are even adapting their schedule to better forage off humans.

Seagulls. Waiting, watching, plotting their next attack. Image credits: Karim Manjra

Cities are unusual habitats. Unlike natural environments, where the interspecies relationships have been chiseled and honed over many generations, cities are noisy, polluted, and weird, built from unwelcoming materials. For most creatures cities are a disaster, completely wrecking any chance of a real habitat. But for a minority of creatures, cities are a godsend.

Just think about rats, seagulls, and roaches — a trio that seems to inhabit every big city on the planet. These creatures (and several others) have not only adapted to urban areas, but they’re often thriving in them. A big part of this adaptation is knowing how to shift their lifestyle based on fluctuations in food sources. Researchers suspected some sort of adaptation must be taking place, but until recently the data had been scarce.

To address this, a team of scientists at Bristol’s Faculties of Engineering and Life Sciences equipped 12 lesser black‐backed seagulls with mini GPS tracker backpacks, recording their behavior at three different settings: a public park, a school, and a waste center. The team also used other observations of gulls at a various number of different sites.

The team found that birds move their foraging patters to closely match the timing of school breaks and the opening and closing times of the waste centre. In other words, they’re not foraging when they’re the hungriest: they’re foraging when they know they have the best chance to find something. Their activity in the park also seemed to correspond with the availability of food sources in the park, but this was not connected to human activity.

Feeling cute, might steal some food later. Image credits: Spelt et al.

This suggests that the birds have the capacity to adapt their foraging patterns and the intelligence to do so, says Dr. Anouk Spelt, lead author of the paper published in Ibis, the International Journal of Avian Science.

“Our first day at the school, the students were excited to tell us about the gulls visiting their school at lunch time. Indeed, our data showed that gulls were not only present in high numbers during lunch time to feed on leftovers, but also just before the start of the school and during the first break when students had their snack. Similarly, at the waste centre the gulls were present in higher numbers on weekdays when the centre was open and trucks were unloading food waste.”

There’s also some good news: seagulls aren’t really planning to steal your chips, they’re more interested in other types of food readily available in parks.

“Although everybody has experienced or seen gulls stealing food from people in parks, our gulls mainly went to park first thing in the morning and this may be because earthworms and insects are present in higher numbers during these early hours,” says Spelt.

It’s also interesting that the number of gulls and the number of people at the school were positively related only during weekdays — during weekends, the relationship was opposite. So humans can both attract and deter seagulls, based on the birds’ perception. A weekday behavior was also observed at the waste center where during working days, waste was unloaded regularly (up to 15 times a day) during the opening times. At the weekend, however, no new waste was unloaded due to the center being closed, and birds were less likely to come to the center. At both locations, the gulls were observed waiting on the surrounding rooftops before school breaks and before waste was unloaded, implying that they were waiting there specifically for food to become available.

The behavioral flexibility of the gulls also impresses co-author Dr. Shane Windsor, who concludes:

“With this study in Bristol we have shown that gulls in cities are able to adapt their foraging schedule to make best use of food resources depending on their availability. Some gulls even used all three feeding grounds in the same day, suggesting they might track the availability to optimise their energy intake. These results highlight the behavioural flexibility of gulls and their ability to adapt to the artificial environments and time schedules of urban living.”

Journal Reference: Spelt et al. Urban gulls adapt foraging schedule to human‐activity patterns. https://doi.org/10.1111/ibi.12892

SpaceX launches new satellite that will make GPS three times more accurate (eventually)

Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation could eventually be subject to a major upgrade as Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched a satellite that promises to make GPS three times more accurate. Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily mean that improvements will be seen overnight.

Credit Lockheed Martin

Usually taken for granted, GPS satellite navigation has become an essential tool for anything from military operations to a road trip. Every GPS device determines its position, navigation and timing information by receiving signals from a constellation of satellites orbiting the Earth 20,000 kilometers away.

The technology already works pretty well already and it feels like it’s always been there, despite its actually quite new, with the first such satellites launched in 1978 by the United States. Since then, many organizations have been involved in trying to refine it. Now, it was time for SpaceX to join that group.

Earlier this week, a Falcon 9 rocket delivered its first payload for the United States Space Force mission, carrying a state-of-the-art new GPS satellite. The mission sent up the third satellite for the so-called GPS III project, which seeks to upgrade the constellation of GPS satellites currently orbiting the planet.

“Your GPS just got slightly better,” Musk wrote on Twitter moments after the GPS III satellite was deployed. But that’s not actually true since GPS doesn’t get better automatically just because SpaceX launched a new satellite into space. Still, when more such satellites are deployed, the improvement should be more visible.

The current GPS technology can narrow down a location within 28 inches (about 71 centimeters). While that’s quite an achievement, GPS III technology will narrow that range down even further, offering accuracy within nine inches (about 22 centimeters). That’s almost three times as accurate as now.

Coverage will also improve. This might mean that the dreaded “searching for signal” message on a cellphone while trying to get to a restaurant or a party could eventually be something of the past. Or maybe even forget about the difficulties of getting a GPS signal when you are in a forested or mountainous region during a hike.

The new satellites have a 15-year lifespan, which is twice as long as the current ones. They can be launched two at once, making them cheaper. And, most importantly, they will be harder to jam. So far, only one of the three that are in orbit is fully operational and the manufacturer Lockheed Martin is now building ten more.

Understanding GPS

GPS technology essentially uses signals from satellites in the sky to pinpoint the location of a user. A receiver, usually a smartphone, measures how long it took for a given satellite’s signal to reach Earth and then multiplies the time by the speed of a radio wave to work out the distance.

Nowadays GPS applications aren’t limited to simple, though widespread, auto-navigation, or as personal mapping; they’re used by manufacturing industries, supply chains, drilling oil, various other logistics, banks, and virtually anything you can imagine. A report warned in 2017 that the world might depend too much on the technology.

While the United States’ GPS constellation first started in 1978, the US is just one player in this global field. In 1982, the Soviet Union launched GLONASS, or Global Navigation Satellite System, and China followed with Beidou in 2000. Then came the European Space Agency with its first experimental satellite positioning system, Galileo, in 2005.

Close-up of the 'quantum compass'. Credit: Imperial College London

‘Quantum compass’ can locate objects without GPS

It’s difficult to imagine modern life without GPS — we use it for everything from personal and in-car navigation, to drones and self-driving cars. Sometimes, however, a GPS signal might not be available due to factors such as tall buildings, lack of signal, or deliberate jamming by a third party. Now, British researchers at Imperial College London (ICL) have presented an alternative to the time-honored GPS, a quantum “compass” that can pinpoint its location on the globe without having to rely on satellites or any other external reference.

Close-up of the 'quantum compass'. Credit: Imperial College London

Close-up of the ‘quantum compass’. Credit: Imperial College London

The remarkable device was recently unveiled at the National Quantum Technologies Showcase, an event dedicated to presenting the technical progress achieved by projects funded by the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, worth £270m.

Credit: Imperial College London.

Credit: Imperial College London.

The researchers who built the device call it a “standalone quantum accelerometer”. Today, accelerometers are commonly embedded in all sorts of common technologies, including airbags or your phone. As the name implies, accelerometers are electromechanical devices that sense either static or dynamic forces of acceleration to keep track of the movement and orientation. Using an accelerometer, it’s easy to determine the position of an object knowing its original position and velocity. However, over time, a regular accelerometer loses precision without an external reference, such as a GPS signal, to calibrate it.

This new quantum accelerometer doesn’t have this problem, being able to accurately measure its position without any external reference. It is, for all intents and purposes, self-contained.

What sets the ICL technology apart from other accelerometers is that it measures the properties of supercooled atoms. Close to absolute zero, the movement of atoms starts exhibiting quantum behavior, acting as both particles and waves. Because the wave properties are affected by acceleration, an ‘optical ruler’ can measure extremely minute changes with accuracy. The atoms are both cooled and measured by a laser system.

“When the atoms are ultra-cold we have to use quantum mechanics to describe how they move, and this allows us to make what we call an atom interferometer,” Dr. Joseph Cotter, from the Centre for Cold Matter at Imperial, said in a statement.

As it stands today, the quantum compass is far too large to fit inside a phone, but it could prove useful for the navigation of ships or trains. However, since the principles are the same, the device could also be suitable for research in fundamental science such as the search for dark energy or detecting gravitational waves. Military applications will also find quantum compasses incredibly appealing since a nuclear submarine or airplane can now precisely track its position without having to rely on GPS, whose signal is both detectable and jammable.

Having an alternative to GPS will certainly come in handy. According to an estimate, if the satellite network was denied for a single day, the UK would stand to lose about a million pounds. This is just the beginning, though — we should all expect more interesting things to come out of such a technology.

“I think it’s tremendously exciting that this quantum technology is now moving out of the basic science lab and being applied to problems in the wider world, all from the fantastic sensitivity and reliability that you can only get from these quantum systems,” Professor Ed Hinds, from the Centre for Cold Matter at Imperial, said in a statement.

The results are promising, but are still in an early stage, and have not been peer-reviewed. It remains to be seen whether the results really stand true, and whether the technology could be incorporated into practical situations. At least for now, the jury is still out on this one.

loggerhead turtle swimming

Sea turtles use Earth’s magnetic field like a GPS to find their birthplace

Although they might not have seen or been to their nesting grounds for decades, loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) know how to come back home with impressive accuracy rivaling man-made GPS. Now, a new study found just how exactly the turtles manage this feat: they use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate across miles and miles.

loggerhead turtle swimming

Credit: Public Domain.

For years, the loggerheads swim in loops from their nesting sites in North Carolina and Florida to North Africa. Despite the vast distances they cover, the turtles always manage to find their way home, returning to their nest beaches within about 40 to 50 miles of where they were originally born.

“Loggerhead sea turtles are fascinating creatures that begin their lives by migrating alone across the Atlantic Ocean and back,” says Kenneth Lohmann, professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Eventually they return to nest on the beach where they hatched—or else, as it turns out, on a beach with a very similar magnetic field.”

According to researchers at the University of North Carolina, the loggerheads employ so-called geomagnetic imprinting to navigate their surroundings — the same process employed by some birds and fish. According to the team of researchers, the turtles can sense both the magnetic field’s intensity and inclination angle.

The scientists came to this conclusion after studying the genetic makeup of more than 800 Florida loggerheads. They showed that the turtles that nest on beaches with similar magnetic signatures were also more genetically similar than turtles that nest on beaches that were physically close to each other. Usually, you’d expect animals that are born geographically close to one another to be more related than those conceived at geographically distant locations — but the opposite was true here.

Not only was the variation of Earth’s magnetic field around a nesting site a better predictor of genetic differentiation than geographic distance, it was also a better predictor than typically important environmental conditions, such as beach temperature.

Baby loggerhead. Credit: Maxpexel.

Baby loggerhead. Credit: Maxpexel.

Although the study’s findings are limited since they’re based on genetic data, rather than experimental evidence, a more definite study is not really an option. Loggerheads take about 20 years to become sexually active and reproduce, and only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings make it to this age. It’s just unrealistic to run such an experiment for this long. But, at the end of the day, you don’t need things to be definitive for them to be evident.

Conservation efforts should consider the importance of a beach’s magnetic field for attracting loggerhead sea turtles. For instance, sea walls, power lines, and large beachfront buildings are just a few examples of perturbing factors that may alter the magnetic fields that turtles encounter.

“This is an important new insight into how sea turtles navigate during their long-distance migrations. It might have important applications for the conservation of sea turtles, as well as other migratory animals such as salmon, sharks, and certain birds,” Lohmann says.

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

Japan launches satellite to generate its own, better GPS

The country’s space agency is looking to build a homegrown, more efficient positioning system.

The quasi-zenith satellite Michibiki. Image credits: JAXA.

Space-based navigation systems changed the world as we know it. GPS, the most commonly used system today, is in everything and anything, from flying planes to your very own smartphone using Google Maps or a similar app. GPS is basically a global navigation satellite system that provides geolocation and time information to a receiver anywhere on Earth — if the user has direct access to enough satellites. The cool thing about GPS (one of many cool things, at least) is that it operates independently of any telephonic or internet reception. But GPS isn’t the only such system. It was invented in the United States in 1973, by the military, to overcome the shortcomings of previous technologies. It works very well most of the time, but Japan just felt it wasn’t enough.

So working with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, JAXA (the Japanese equivalent of NASA) launched a rocket carrying the “Michibiki No.2” satellite (michibiki meaning ‘guidance’). The first Michibiki satellite was launched in 2010, and two more will be launched later this year. If everything goes according to plan, once the four Michibikis are in space, at least one satellite will be overhead in Japan at all times. This will greatly improve the accuracy of the positioning system.

“The launch was a success,” a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said.

The new positioning system will greatly reduce positioning errors, especially in the urban areas. Image via Pixabay.

The idea isn’t to replace GPS, but rather to work in tandem with it for better results. While globally, GPS typically has an error of about 10 meters (33 feet). GPS + Michibiki will reduce the error to only several centimeters. Furthermore, the system will increase the availability of GPS in Japan’s numerous urban canyons, where typically only a few satellites can be seen. Reliability is also improved through means of failure monitoring and system health data notifications.

The system will cover not only Japan, but also nearby regions of Asia and Oceania, and is intended for civilian use.

“After we establish the four-satellite network, its use can expand into self-driving cars, agriculture, construction and other fields,” Yosuke Tsuruho, a state minister in charge of space policy, told reporters, according to Jiji Press.

In time, the system will also be used for driverless tractors, cars, and other automated systems.

Japan plans to further expand its satellite fleet by 2023.

The WiTrack system provides significantly increased accuracy in tracking a person’s movement, and can even detect motion through walls and obstructions. (c) MIT

Highly accurate 3-D positioning system could change the face of gaming

The WiTrack system provides significantly increased accuracy in tracking a person’s movement, and can even detect motion through walls and obstructions.  (c) MIT

The WiTrack system provides significantly increased accuracy in tracking a person’s movement, and can even detect motion through walls and obstructions. (c) MIT

The way people play Battlefield or Call of Duty could change forever by bringing the heat of action to your living room. More specifically, by making action video games into real-life action as the gamer’s movements are tracked and reflected in the virtual world. The idea isn’t new, but a new 3-D positioning system developed at MIT looks so promising that finally we might be able to see a working version of such gaming possibilities in the near future.

Called WiTrack, the system uses radio-waves, instead of WiFi or image recognition like other motion tracking systems employ, to pinpoint the movement and individual actions like waving a hand or holding an object with extreme accuracy. According to the MIT researchers, WiTrack can pinpoint within 10 to 20 centimeters — about the width of an adult hand.

“Today, if you are playing a game with the Xbox Kinect or Nintendo Wii, you have to stand right in front of your gaming console, which limits the types of games you can play,” says Dina Katabi, a professor of computer science and engineering and co-director of the MIT Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing. “Imagine playing an interactive video game that transforms your entire home into a virtual world. The game console tracks you as you run down real hallways away from video game enemies, or as you hide from other players behind couches and walls. This is what WiTrack can bring to video gaming.”

A different, more efficient type of motion tracking

Previously, Katabi and her graduate student Fadel Adib unveiled WiVi, developed a system that detects humans through walls and can track the direction of their movement using WiFi signals. Similarly, WiTrack can also locate a person through walls and obstructions, but instead of WiFi it uses radio signals. This translates in a huge energy saving, since there bandwidth limitations. Other tracking systems use things like image processing which causes intense strain on computing resources, and can’t ‘see’ through walls.

“Because of the limited bandwidth, you cannot get very high location accuracy using WiFi signals,” Adib says. “WiTrack transmits a very low-power radio signal, 100 times smaller than WiFi and 1,000 times smaller than what your cell phone can transmit. But the signal is structured in a particular way to measure the time from when the signal was transmitted until the reflections come back. WiTrack has a geometric model that maps reflection delays to the exact location of the person. The model can also eliminate reflections off walls and furniture to allow us to focus on tracking human motion.”

Here’s how it works: the system is comprised of four antennas – one is a transmitter, while the other three act as receivers; the radio signals that are reflected by a person inside a room are caught by the three antennas and the travel distance is measured for each. An algorithm creates a geometrical model of the user’s location and can track both two-dimensional and three-dimensional movement using specialized radio waves.

[ALSO READ] Virtual game for the blind

Live action

What makes the WiTrack particularly appealing is that you can use it without actually needing to carry any hardware at hand. There’s no need to have a WiFi transmitter or anything, and users can roam spaces freely while still providing high-accuracy localization. Check the video below for a great explanation and demonstration of the WiTrack in action.

“Motion tracking has generally been accomplished by analyzing images captured from strategically placed cameras inside the room. A limitation of such systems is that they only work when the moving object is directly in the camera’s line of sight,” Bahl says. “Another problem is [that] image analysis is a computationally heavyweight operation.”

“The technology Professor Katabi and her students have developed does not have these limitations,” he adds. “Their system detects movement without requiring a huge amount of computational power, and without having to be placed inside the room. The surprising thing is that it is very accurate. There is still more research to be done, but the approach is promising.”

The researchers involved in the project say such a device for commercial use can be made relatively cheaply. Next, they plan on advancing the WiTrack system so that it can track more than one person in motion at a time.

Asthmapping: Smart GPS Inhalers Save Lives

Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory disease that causes the airways of the lungs to swell and narrow, leading to wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing. It affects millions of people worldwide, and despite the fact that treatment exists for it, getting the right dosage and regime requires extremely detailed information about the disease and its symptoms – and this is something people are not very good at.

What is Asthmapolis? from Asthmapolis on Vimeo.

David Van Sickle, founder and CEO of Asthmapolis believes he’s found the solution to this problem; he designed a set of tools which help patients and monitor the disease’s behaviour. Basically, you attach a Bluetooth sensor to your inhaler which tracks the time and location of each inhale; using nothing more than your average smartphone, the information can then be passed to Asthmapolis’ servers to track the response to treatment and patterns in disease evolution and outbreaks. The solution is as simple as it is elegant and effective.

“Historically in asthma we haven’t done much except provide patients with a rationale for keeping pen and paper and encouraging them to bring them to their next visit,” says Van Sickle. The problem is that no one likes doing this; it’s just one more burden that comes with the disease. So people forget, or procrastinate, or try to guess. “We know those diaries are often inaccurate,” he says, “They’re generally fabricated.”


Regarding public health, the same problem is posed; there is little to no information regarding where people are during an outbreak.

“The assumption is that all that happened at their house which is a bad assumption to make.”

Asthmapolis attacks this problem by understanding that modern medicine is a lot about data collection; when you press the inhaler the sensor detects that you’ve used the medicine, and the GPS and clock record where and when. The device went through several development phases, because not is as simple as it seems, but the final one really seems flawless. Now, we await the results.

“Asthma patients are a tough demographic,” says Van Sickle, “We’ve got kids, older folks, people where it’s work related, people who need it when they exercise, and people who don’t use it often.”

Source (both article and pictures): Asthmapolis

The world may be too dependent on GPS, report says

Besides their evident telecommunications value, satellites also pose enormous benefits when synchronization and navigation are concerned, available and more and more used to the common public through GNSS (global navigation satellite system) or the US based GPS (global positioning system). However, a report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK warns that the nation has become overly reliant on the system, which academicians consider it to be very vulnerable and prone to natural hazards (solar flares) or deliberate attacks (terrorist endeavors).

Dr Martyn Thomas, who chaired the group that wrote the report, said: “We’re not saying that the sky is about to fall in; we’re not saying there’s a calamity around the corner.

“What we’re saying is that there is a growing interdependence between systems that people think are backing each other up. And it might well be that if a number these systems fail simultaneously, it will cause commercial damage or just conceivably loss of life. This is wholly avoidable.”

Remember, that GPS applications aren’t limited to simple, though widespread, auto-navigation or as personal mapping; they’re used by manufacturing industries, supply chains, drilling oil, various other logistics, banks, and virtually anything you can imagine. It’s not a UK based dependency either, it’s a fact well known applying to the whole world. The failure of such a system might indeed deem severe economic and social consequences.

Just how much? Let’s just stick to money-wise -the European Commission, in a recent update on its forthcoming Galileo sat-nav network, estimated that about 6-7% of Europe’s GDP, approximately 800bn euros (£690bn) annually, was now dependent in some way on GNSS data.

“The deployment of Europe’s Galileo system will greatly improve the resilience of the combined GPS/Galileo system, but many of the vulnerabilities we have identified in this report will remain,” says Dr Thomas.

“No-one has a complete picture of the many ways in which we have become dependent on weak signals 12,000 miles above us.”

The report goes on to suggest some solutions for backing-up and improving the signal, such that calamities might be avoided, such as awareness campaign so that users might begin to back-up their signals, R&D investments for new signal-enhancing technology, and probably the most practical – a plea to the UK government to ban jamming equipment. This kind of equipment can be bought for as low as 30$ and are used mostly by criminals to disrupt tracking signals for jacked cars.

I think the subjects begs for an interesting question to be pondered, how many of you know how to read a map?