Wishing on a star is poetic fun but it won’t earn you a seat at the table when the U.S. Air Force was developing its Global Positioning System technology nearly 30 years ago. And with ambitious stargazers such as Texas Instruments and Magnavox scanning the skies, Rockwell Collins, the underdog in the race, knew what they were up against.
On a warm July evening in 1977, Rockwell engineer Dave Van Dusseldorp took his position on a rooftop on the north campus of Rockwell Collins with his antenna creation that he described as a “base with a bedspring sticking out of it.” His job was to keep the antenna stable and aimed, waiting to receive the test signal the Air Force’s satellite would send that evening, while his colleagues down in the monitoring lab tracked the signal. “You look up at the sky thinking you’ll see the satellite, but of course you can’t,” he said.
Everyone was expecting a catchy phrase like, “Welcome to GPS,” but what they received was a string of A’s.
“A’s are the most difficult to decode,” Van Dusseldorp explained. “If it isn’t done right, the A’s can be confused for 5’s.” But the Rockwell team was successful in the decoding, and more importantly – one of the first.
Initially, the GPS business was to go to the Anaheim, California-based Autonetics Division. But when Autonetics declined the Air Force’ Request for Proposal (RFP), Rockwell Collins senior leadership in Cedar Rapids decided to take a leap of faith. Already three weeks behind in the RFP process, the company garnered a two-week extension, and the Collins core team went to work, working around the clock to prepare a proposal. And won.
The first Rockwell Collins GPS resembled something out of a 1950’s science fiction movie. The two-seater console system, mounted on a wheeled platform, required a forklift to move it around. Compare that to the Rockwell Collins MicroDAGR GPS used by the U.S. Army today that weighs a matter of ounces and can be worn on the wrist.
The GPS nearly didn’t survive numerous political battles and skepticism in the early 1970’s, but as Don Stulken, a Rockwell Collins engineer who worked on the GPS program put it, “GPS was always filled with visionaries who could see its great potential even before supporting technologies were developed. The shooting down of a civilian Boeing 747 by the Soviets after it had strayed into their territory, coupled with compelling testimony by our Rockwell Collins GPS leaders, and our Rockwell Collins technical and program performance, is what gave GPS to the world – in my humble opinion.”
John Keefer was also part of the early GPS Rockwell Collins team. “New applications for this technology continue to be identified,” he said. “I wouldn’t dream of going on a trip without my personal GPS navigation for the car. I love to play golf and when I do, I have my handheld GPS receiver to tell me the distance to the green, or a hazard to be avoided. All I have to do is hit the shot, and I’m still working on that.”
Whether it’s monitoring a prisoner’s whereabouts, looking for an Italian restaurant or planting the next corn crop, GPS will be with us because of the success on that rooftop some 32 years ago.