GPS for Aircraft: What Are the Key Components?

When you’re trying to get around, there is no better tool than GPS. More than 30 satellites send signals to your device. They pinpoint exactly where you are in space, and they can give you visuals of your surroundings. 

It may seem like magic. But GPS is composed of dozens of individual components, especially on aircraft. When one wrong move can cause a devastating accident, GPS for aircraft has to be precise. 

Yet even experienced pilots don’t know what makes up an aircraft GPS. Understand how it works and you can enrich your knowledge of navigational technology. Here is your quick guide to the plane GPS. 

Components of GPS for Aircraft

GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It provides three-dimensional maps across the entirety of the Earth’s surface. 

The first important component is the space segment. This is the constellation of satellites that send signals to the devices. The device determines a location based on how far it is from the satellites. 

The health of these satellites is monitored through the control segment. This is a group of research stations scattered around the world. 

The user segment is the equipment that receives the GPS signal. This equipment has several components of its own. 

Receiver autonomous integrity monitoring (RAIM) monitors satellites. A GPS device receives multiple signals from satellites at once. RAIM sorts through these signals to determine which one is accurate. 

The non-directional radio beacon (NDB) is an Earth-based beacon that transmits an electric signal. The signal goes to the plane’s GPS and displays the aircraft’s location in relation to the NDB. 

An inertial navigation system (INS) is different from a GPS. An INS monitors the velocity of the aircraft and what its orientation is.

GNSS stands for Global Navigation Satellite System. GPS is limited to the United States, but GNSS includes the satellite systems of other countries. Some GPS systems can provide dynamic INS and GNSS signals, but others do not.  

How the Components Function

Many pilots operate under visual flight rules. This means that they use visual ground references to guide their plane. These pilots then transition to GPS when they encounter inclement weather or rough conditions. 

They look to their GPS monitor, and they may see a graphic indicating their location. This is what the NDB is producing. The NDB supplies enough information that the pilot can see upcoming sites like airports. 

The monitor also contains the longitude and latitude of the aircraft. This is the product of RAIM. 

RAIM compares the multiple signals it receives to each other. If one is significantly different from the others, it is likely to be corrupt.

Some forms of RAIM can make predictions based on the aircraft’s motion. If a satellite signal does not correspond to that prediction, then the signal is inaccurate. 

The Essentials of the Aircraft GPS

GPS for aircraft contains many different components. The monitoring system includes the space segment, which is the dozens of satellites that send signals to devices.

RAIM monitors these satellites to find the most accurate signal. The NDB shows where the aircraft is in relationship to the Earth. INS provides information on velocity, which a pilot can use to adjust their position. 

Many pilots fly without needing a GPS. When they do, their system provides visual and written information outlining their position.  

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