Missing the Boat to Finland

ION 2008 News Coverage:

Jeff Chappell Blogs

GPS WorldWell, as I write this, Day 4 of ION and related happenings is behind me: my feet hurt, I’m tired of hotel and tradeshow food, I finally missed the boat this morning – literally; and I’ve got all manner of position, timing, and navigation minutiae whirling around in my brain. And there is a love bug in my hair (seriously – it’s apparently the time of year that they, uh, live up to their name, shall we say, down here on the Georgia coast).

The end of events like ION always seems to result in information overload. Whose card is this? Which company/product do these notes pertain to? Did I file a story/blog on that yet? Did I upload the copy for today’s newsletter?

So rather than try and sort it all out here, I’ll just pick one thing from today and run with it, and save the rest for later. Has the time come for the software GPS receiver? Depends on whom one asks, and it also depends on what you are doing with your application that requires GPS. Regardless of how you feel about it, the topic has garnered a lot of attention at ION this year. Among this morning’s tracks here at ION was one for new products; one of the one’s that drew the most attendance was the first one of the morning, where Stefan Söderholm, chief research officer for Finland’s Fastrax, discussed the company’s software GPS receiver, which it first introduced last spring.

Now, I have to come clean here; I talked to Söderholm after the fact, because I got to the convention center just as his talk came to an end and the next presenter came on. I missed the boat taking people across the river here from Savannah proper to the convention center – the guy in front of me was literally the last one they let on as I came running up – so with some colorful language I set out to find a land taxi. I figured the software GPS presentation might be generating some buzz, and didn’t want to miss it (I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t stopped to get espresso this morning; what I can I say? I’m spoiled).

As I got there, even though the break wasn’t for another hour, people were already wandering down the hall discussing the merits of software GPS. I walked into the session just as the next presentation began, and the room was still pretty full. However, with each hardware presentation afterward until the break, more and more people seemed to leave; that’s too bad, as they missed some interesting presentations, among them NXP’s single-die receiver module and Navteq’s single-channel receiver, which can achieve a horizontal positioning accuracy down to 30 centimeters.

Who Says There’s No Buzz?

But it’s the software receiver concept that seems to have the buzz, at least what buzz there is this year. Söderholm said that the company had received a heavy amount of interest at ION, particularly since it unveiled an RF front-end, the IT900, to go along with its software GPS receiver.

So why would you go with a software GPS? “The reason to go with a software GPS is of course price,” Söderholm said. If you’ve got existing RF hardware in your product already, it’s a simple matter to integrate. Even if you don’t, RF chips are pretty cheap these days; when it comes to semiconductors, it’s about as commoditized as you can get. The IT900 has apparently helped raise interest in the software receiver for Fastrax, as it, combined with software receiver, offers up a tidy and cost-effective solution for low volume applications.

There is a lot of interest from the always cost-sensitive consumer side, naturally, but Söderholm says there has also been a lot of interest from the makers of development boards, the people who are designing products for others.

What of the MIPS, you ask? The processor demands on many devices these days are small enough that it can be tasked with the calculations that GPS positioning needs, says Söderholm; Fastrax can match the performance of any embedded GPS hardware, it says.

This would naturally make software GPS ideal for PNDs, which are pretty much doing just mapping and GPS, as well as portable media players and other multimedia devices. While the hardware in the standard mobile phone isn’t up the task, and probably won’t be for at least a few more years, according to Söderholm, your average smartphone has enough beef in its processor to do the job without noticeably affecting performance, so that is naturally a market that Fastrax is eyeing.

What’s cool for the development people interested in software GPS is that parameters are easily changed. Need more or fewer correlators? Change it – you’re not stuck implementing the design in hardware. Even if you are designing a product that will have a hardware GPS receiver at it’s heart, it’s easy to see how a software GPS receiver would come in handy for development. I’m not an engineer, but it seems to me this would be good approach for multi-GNSS products as well, for both test equipment and product development – especially considering that the multi-GNSS world is still in its infancy.

So, as an ION GNSS that has had some complaining that there’s no gee-whiz stuff going on, those doing the grumbling should look Fastrax over. Only time and the market will tell if software GPS is ready for prime time, but the Fins make a pretty good case.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story/blog entry written by me that originally appeared on GPS World. GPS World and parent Questex Media hold all of the rights. You can still see a copy of this story at GPS World.

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