Global Position Reporting

Although the GPS was originally intended for use by the military, in peace time it has given rise to applications that were heretofore limited to science fiction.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) has given rise to many unique applications and is destined to make its mark among the technological wonders of the world. The Automatic Position Reporting System (APRS) is an application that uses the GPS to allow amateur radio operators to broadcast latitude, longitude, heading, velocity and weather to remote receivers. Linux plays an important role in this application by providing the gateway between wireless APRS LANs and the Internet. This article provides an introduction to the GPS and APRS, and describes how Linux is being used to develop a nationwide APRS backbone. Also included is a list of hosts and web sites to which Linux users can connect to obtain real-time position reports. I will also discuss the Linux applications aprsmon, aprsd and PerlAPRS which take advantage of the power of Linux and the Internet to extend the usefulness of the GPS.

When historians look back upon the engineering accomplishments of the twentieth century, the Global Positioning System (GPS) is certain to be among the top engineering wonders. It represents major accomplishments in computer hardware and software, reliability, satellite technology, physics, communication and electronic engineering. By any standard, it is a marvel and a testament to the belief that mankind can accomplish anything the imagination can think of.

As Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction author and “father” of the geosynchronous satellite, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In many ways, that phrase describes the GPS perfectly—it is magic. Although virtually everyone has heard of the GPS today, it wasn't always this widely known. I remember being handed a small GPS receiver a few years ago and being told that this little device would tell me where I was located anywhere on earth. I could not believe it and was not prepared to be sucked into this canard. How could this device, barely the size of a cellular phone, tell me where I was located within a few hundred feet? It just couldn't be; this had to be a hoax. Upon further discussion and a demonstration, I was hooked; I knew I had to have one, but wasn't sure why. When the Automatic Position Reporting System (APRS) was being developed, I knew I had found my excuse.

The Automatic Position Reporting System is one of the peacetime applications; it unites the GPS with amateur radio. APRS is one of the most popular facets of amateur radio today, and Linux supports APRS with several unique applications. For example, if you wish to know the location of a float in the Rose Bowl parade or the location of the Olympic Torch, APRS can provide that information.


The Automatic Position Reporting System allows amateur radio operators to send and receive position reports obtained from either a GPS receiver or a known fixed position. (See APRS Formats.) In fixed-position applications, radio frequency packet transmissions are broadcast from a stationary location such as a building or home. Since the station is fixed, there is no need for a GPS receiver to continually update its position. More interesting are mobile applications in which vehicles are tracked.

APRS Formats

Most GPS receivers have a graphic liquid crystal display (LCD) which is normally attached to the dash of the car for easy viewing. A cable connects the internal GPS receiver to an external antenna. The external antenna is important since it provides better reception. Although a GPS receiver provides visual information to the occupants of the vehicle, virtually all GPS units provide an RS-232/4800 baud connection to allow the receiver to connect to an external device such as a laptop computer. However, for APRS applications, we are interested in broadcasting our position to the wireless APRS network. Therefore, the serial output of the GPS receiver is connected to a terminal node controller (TNC), which acts like a modem and changes the digital data stream to analog tones. The tones are then fed into a transmitter which broadcasts packets containing GPS position information. This configuration is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. GPS Configuration

Figure 2. GPS Satellite Antenna and Mr. Parry

Figure 2 shows an example of a tracker. Here, an ordinary automobile is shown with some not-so-ordinary equipment attached to the trunk. The object of interest, located in the center of the trunk, is a GPS satellite antenna. Also shown is a vertical whip antenna, used to broadcast APRS packets from a transmitter located within the vehicle. A second vertical whip antenna is used for voice communication. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (i.e., leaning on the car).