Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering awarded to the creators of the Global Positioning System

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The 2019 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (QEPrize) has been awarded to four engineers responsible for creating the first truly global, satellite-based positioning system – GPS. The QE Prize is the world’s most prestigious engineering accolade, a £1 million prize that celebrates the global impact of engineering innovation on humanity.

The 2019 winners are Dr Bradford Parkinson, Professor James Spilker, Jr, Hugo Fruehauf, and Richard Schwartz – announced by Lord Browne of Madingley, Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation, in the presence of HRH The Princess Royal in London.

The global positioning system represents a pioneering innovation which, for the first time, enabled free, immediate access to accurate position and timing information around the world. Today, an estimated four billion people around the world use GPS, and its applications range from navigation and disaster relief through to climate monitoring systems, banking systems, and the foundation of tomorrow’s transport, agriculture, and industry.

GPS uses a constellation of at least 24 orbiting satellites, ground stations, and receiving devices. Each satellite broadcasts a radio signal containing its location and the time from an extremely accurate onboard atomic clock. GPS receivers need signals from at least four satellites to determine their position; they measure the time delay in each signal to calculate the distance to each satellite, then use that information to pinpoint the receiver’s location on earth.

When asked whether the winners knew that GPS could change the world, Dr Bradford Parkinson said: “One of the most important things we had when the project started was a vision of world impact. Without that inspiration, it would have been difficult for us to weather the storms of doing something for the first time. Back in 1978, I made a few drawings that depicted GPS applications that I could personally foresee; they included an automobile navigation system, semi-automatic air traffic control, and wide-area vehicle monitoring, and seem to be rather accurate 41 years later. That said, none of us could fathom the sheer breadth of GPS applications – the many ways that it would become a “System for Humanity”.

When asked which GPS applications surprised him the most, Hugo Freuhauf said: “What surprised me the most was the general response from industry – it blew me away. The world’s tech industry reduced a 40lb (18kg), $100K backpack-sized GPS receiver into a fingernail-sized chip receiver that now costs less than $2. Because of that, GPS is everywhere; it is part of the global economic engine and key to global safe-keeping. It’s had an almost unimaginable impact on the globe.”

When asked about his future predictions for GPS, Richard Schwartz said: “It’s hard to imagine what young and creative engineers will come up with next – it’s such a rapidly developing world. That said, in the not too distant future I think I will be able to step into a driverless car, tell the car where I’d like to go, and then sit back and enjoy the ride.

“The second prediction relates to farming, as we are already starting to see rapid innovation in agriculture. If farmers can precisely tend to their fields around the clock – at low cost – then food supply around the world will significantly increase, providing the next step towards ending world hunger.”

The four winners will be formally honoured at a ceremony later this year; they will receive the £1 million prize and an iconic trophy designed by the 2019 Create the Trophy competition winner, 16 year-old Jack Jiang from Hong Kong.

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