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How does a sat nav work?

Posted on by Idrive

As far as technology goes, satellite navigation has had a huge impact on the way we navigate out on the roads. Where we used to be stuck with a map on our laps, we now have specific and detailed directions for finding our destinations. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the sat nav, but over the last 10 years the bumps seem to have been smoothed out.

Many people now constantly use their sat nav for guidance and to find the best route, and it has been a godsend for the van driver who might be unfamiliar with particular areas, or for those who need to deliver goods on time. So how does it work? In this article we’ll be giving you a brief history of the sat nav and the technology behind it.


With a great deal of space exploration and satellite launching going on in the 50s and 60s the US were inspired to send a network of satellites up into orbit, with the first one going up in 1978. This was initially a military tool which was used to map the Earth, and now there are 29 satellites providing around-the-clock coverage of the earth. Using a constant barrage of signals, a combination of satellites (usually no fewer than three) can pinpoint your exact location if you have a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver.

A series of satellites create individual spheres to work out your distance from them, and by overlapping several spheres from different satellites your precise position on the surface of the earth can be determined.

So how does this work with a sat nav as you constantly move? Clearly it takes time for signals to bounce around and the level of accuracy in terms of time and distance obviously needs to be accurate to the split second. This is where the atomic clocks in satellites come into play; to ensure the accuracy of the time signature on a signal is precise, a fourth satellite is used in combination to nail down the time. That’s how your sat nav can calculate the time it will take you to get where you’re going and work out which direction in which you’re facing.

What’s most fascinating about GPS satellites is that, despite the astronomical cost of putting them into orbit, the US doesn’t charge anyone for their use. You might pay for your sat nav or pay for upgraded services, but the use of the main components – the satellites – is actually free for all companies.

If you’re halfway up a mountain, the satellites will know, as they have the ability to detect any angled position and place your location on a map. So when you’re next journey is a long one, or one to a new city where you’ve never driven before, then a sat nav is a handy companion which will see you take the best route and make the best time.

Here at I-Drive Van Hire we provide a variety of accessories for your van, including satellite navigation devices. Contact us today to learn about our great rates for sat nav hire and find out more about how you can benefit from accurate directions.

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