Examining precise point positioning now and in the future

Abstract

PPP. It’s one of the many acronyms (or initialisms, if you prefer) associated with the uses of global navigation satellite systems. It stands for precise point positioning. But what is that? Isn’t all GNSS positioning precise? Well, it’s a matter of degree. Take GPS, for example. The most common kind of GPS signal use, that implemented in vehicle “satnav” units; mobile phones; and hiking, golfing and fitness receivers, is to employ the L1 C/A-code pseudorange (code) measurements along with the broadcast satellite orbit and clock information to produce a point position. Officially, this is termed use of the GPS Standard Positioning Service (SPS). It is capable of meter-level positioning accuracy under the best conditions. There is a second official service based on L1 and L2 P-code measurements and broadcast data called the Precise Positioning Service (PPS). In principle, because the P-code provides somewhat higher precision code measurements and the use of dual-frequency data removes virtually all of the ionospheric effect, PPS is capable of slightly more precise (and accurate) positioning. But because the P-code is encrypted, PPS is only available to so-called authorized users. While meter-level positioning accuracy is sufficient for many, if not most applications, there are many uses of GNSS such as machine control, surveying and various scientific tasks, where accuracies better than 10 centimeters or even 1 centimeter are needed. Positioning accuracies at this level can’t be provided by pseudoranges alone and the use of carrier-phase measurements is required. Phase measurements are much more precise than code measurements although they are ambiguous and this ambiguity must be estimated and possibly resolved to the correct integer value. Traditionally, phase measurements (typically dual-frequency) made by a potentially moving user receiver have been combined with those from a reference receiver at a well-known position to produce very precise (and accurate) positions. If done in real time (through use of a radio link of some kind), this technique is referred to as real-time kinematic or RTK. A disadvantage of RTK positioning is that it requires reference station infrastructure including a radio link (such as mobile phone communications) for real-time results. Is there another way? Yes, and that’s PPP. PPP uses the more precise phase measurements (along with code measurements initially) on at least two carrier frequencies (typically) from the user’s receiver along with precise satellite orbit and clock data derived, by a supplier, from a global network. Precision, in this case, means a horizontal position accuracy of 10 centimeters or better. In this month’s column, we travel along the road of PPP development, examine its current status, and look at where it might go in the near future.