A large part of the human experience is trying to answer the interminable questions "Where are we?" and "Why?" Perhaps the highly intuitive nature of global positioning systems in pinpointing locations and managing assets is key to its widespread interest.

GPS is a significant, yet small, component within the much-larger arena of Geographic Information Systems. GIS hardware and software captures, navigates, analyzes, manipulates and retrieves geospatial data. It can include GPS data, along with project management software, radio-frequency identification and portable mapping tools. Adoption of GIS often requires specialized training and technical support to keep reams of complex information up-to-date and error-free.

These systems are catching on fast but still have limitations due to the long, unpredictable process of gathering data (ENR 2/16 p. 32). But that is changing. Analysts expect GIS software to represent a $1.6-billion industry this year and continue to increase at a rate of 4 to 5% annually. With hardware, GIS technology sales are at least $3 billion every year, analysts say.

WIRED 3-D site plans control machines. (Photo courtesy of TopCon Positioning Systems Inc.)

Also, "we are starting to see a lot of integrated solutions" for construction and engineering, says Dave Sonnen, senior consultant of spatial-information management for International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass. He estimates that owners, architects, engineers and contractors buy about $200 million in GIS software each year.

It all starts with location. U.S. military satellites launched in the 1970s create the basis for the non-proprietary GPS network. Orbiting at 11,000 miles above the Earth, the units send out radio waves to triangulate and organize location in coor-dinates, similar to a Dewey Decimal System for the planet.

10 Electronic Technologies That Changed Construction
1. The Internet
Collaboration Is Evolving From Sharing to Managing
6. The Fax
Speeding the Pace of Business and Shrinking the Globe
2. Computer Aided Design
CAD Pioneers Gave Desktop PCs A Full Range of Electronic Drafting
7. Critical Path Method
Network Logic Was Aided By Mainframe Power
3. Lasers
Lasers Have Become Common Element in Industry’s Toolbox
8. Calculators
Calculators Built on Microchips Doomed Slide Rules
4. Analysis Software
Speed and Power of Computation Opens Doors to New Possibilities
9. Mobile Communications
Contractors Were Early Adopters of Mobile Comms
5. Personal Computers
Personal Computers Empowered Users and Launched a New Age
10. Global Positioning Systems
Location-Based Technologies Track Construction Operations
What's Next?
Innovations Are Ready for Trial and Adoption, But Great Gains Will Take Major Change

In May 2000, the U.S. gave more precision to civilians by lifting a "selective availability" feature that gave an advantage to military users. Prior to that, the advent of inexpensive personal computers helped speed up commercial adoption of GPS in the early 1990s.

Next came a price drop in digital memory. "GIS is a memory hog," says Richard LeFrancois, a technology consultant in Littleton, Colo. When prices fell by 1994, "we could buy a high-end PC for $5,000 that could run applications that did 85% of a $40,000 workstation," he says.

For years, owners have used GPS to log existing construction. But others are considering GPS to monitor jobsite safety as well. Another promising area is site layout and development. "In the past year, we have increased our GPS fleet by 300%," says Matt Eklund, GPS program manager at Sukut Construction Inc., Santa Ana, Calif. Within the last year, Sukut created Eklund’s job to advance GPS control on heavy equipment. Once an aftermarket item only, owners can purchase factory-installed units on Caterpillar and Komatsu machines. Other suppliers like Deere, Case and Volvo are likely to follow suit as GPS interest continues to dig in.