Location! Location! Location!

Location! Location! Location!

Researchers at the University of Calgary are perfecting the science behind global positioning systems
March 1, 2005
Elizabeth Cannon is in the business of finding people, places, and things.

To be more precise, Cannon—a geomatics engineering professor at the University of Calgary—harnesses the signals from Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to improve the accuracy and reliability of devices used for navigation and positioning. That means her research is applied in systems used in everything from landing a plane on the deck of an aircraft carrier during gale-force winds, to helping rescue workers locate someone trapped in a burning office building using their cell phone.

Cannon and her team develop new algorithms and techniques, and then implement them in numerous software and applications. “We span everything from very theoretical work to applications in land vehicles, aircraft, ships, and personal navigation systems,” Cannon says.

The University of Calgary team is the only non-American group involved in a project with the U.S. Navy to land unpiloted aircraft on aircraft carriers. In addition to being a notoriously tight squeeze, these carriers come equipped with so much high-tech communications equipment that there’s great potential for the interference from other sensors—and that can affect the quality of GPS signals. The team is building reliable algorithms to ensure that the GPS equipment used to land those planes is, and remains, accurate—precise within 30 centimetres.

The technology—a radio navigation system formed by a constellation of satellites orbiting the earth and their ground stations—was originally designed to operate in the open sky, where there is a clear line of sight between an antenna and the satellites 20,000 kilometres above them in space. Now, there’s a demand for strong signals that can be read inside buildings, around trees, in parking garages, and other locations. All of these locations create a new challenge for the signals. Using a new CFI-funded signal simulator, Cannon and her team of researchers are simulating these weak-signal environments to test their programs. The University of Calgary team has developed a GPS software receiver—rather than a hardware device—that allows them to change the signal-processing algorithms inside receivers so they can examine the impact of different signal-receiving methods. “In a way, it’s the Holy Grail of GPS,” Cannon says of their receiver. “If you can carry a GPS receiver with you anywhere, and still get a good position from it no matter what location you’re in, then it’s totally seamless.”

In another area of research, Cannon is taking a closer look at cell phones. As ubiquitous as cell phones have become, they are still subject to signal outages and bad reception. Cannon hopes her research will help to eliminate those problems by tying in precise navigational location to communication systems.

Another potential application involves car navigation—the ability to use GPS receivers and other sensors built into a car to map the location of other cars on the roadway. Eventually, Cannon believes that if mapping ability was tied to automatic warning systems about the location and proximity of other cars, the probability of accidents would decrease.


Geomatics—the science and methodology of interpreting geospatial data, or the positioning of objects in time and space—is a growing sector of the Canadian and global economy. Worldwide, the business is projected to generate US$21 billion by 2008, and Canada has established a leadership niche in this market.

Thanks to researchers like Elizabeth Cannon and her team at the University of Calgary, Canada is developing an expertise in the field that is in demand as much for its graduates as its innovations. From satellite navigation, to airborne mapping for oil and gas exploration, to the development of navigation systems to locate people in emergency situations, geomatics technology is a hot item.

The University of Calgary group alone has issued more than 200 licences for the software it has developed, bringing in millions in revenue for the university. “Each application has its own benefits, either economic, or societal,” says Cannon.

More than half the department’s graduate students are drawn to the University of Calgary from outside of Canada, and end up staying there. Companies like Calgary-based NovAtel Inc., a world leader in precise global positioning technologies for agriculture, mining, marine, surveying, unmanned systems, and machine control, snap up the highly qualified personnel that the geomatics’ program produces.

“We really encourage and support the Geomatics program because we benefit by hiring many excellent graduates,” says Tony Murfin, Vice-President of Business Development at NovAtel Inc..

In return, Cannon’s group works with NovAtel on an ad-hoc basis, a collaboration that is contributing to the creation of a geomatics knowledge cluster in Calgary. “There’s value created back to us in terms of interfacing with industry and having a place where our graduates can work,” says Cannon.

The societal benefits of the geomatics research at the University of Calgary are more difficult to quantify because the uses for GPS technology are broad. “We like to say that half the applications haven’t even been developed yet—from tracking animals, to helping people with Alzheimer’s, to tracking lost or stolen cars, to landing aircraft, to safe ship navigation. Cannon says the implications of this are widespread, both from a safety point of view and from a consumer level.


When Bruno Scherzinger began collaborating with Elizabeth Cannon at the University of Calgary, he didn’t know how valuable the partnership would become. He does now.

Scherzinger is the Chief Technology Officer at Applanix Corp., a Richmond Hill, Ontario-based company that manufactures Position and Orientation Systems for mobile mapping and surveying from moving vehicles. The company’s products are used in everything from aerial and marine surveying and mapping to remote sensing, road profiling, and GPS data acquisition.

In 1994, Applanix began working with Cannon and the geomatics group at the University of Calgary to develop algorithms for real-time processing. The algorithms would improve the precise accuracy of the company’s mapping and surveying products to within a few centimetres. The work done by Cannon and her team enabled Applanix to develop a two-antenna GPS compass, a development that proved to be a breakthrough technology for the firm, Scherzinger says.

“The performance of our product improved significantly,” says Scherzinger. “It increased our competitive advantage and produced a business milestone, as a result of that technical milestone.”

Today, Applanix employs 90 people and has contracts around the world. Thanks to the algorithms and software that Cannon and her team developed, the company’s position and orientation systems are able to deliver centimetre-level position accuracy and measurements of the position, roll, pitch, and true heading of moving vehicles.