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Stanford Report, February 19, 2003

GPS pioneer Bradford Parkinson awarded Draper Prize in engineering


There was a time, not long ago, when hikers had to rely exclusively on a compass or map to find their way out of the woods. But now, backpackers wandering in even the most remote wilderness can instantly figure out their exact location simply by turning on a $100 handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device.

On Tuesday, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) honored two of the pioneers of GPS technology -- Bradford W. Parkinson of Stanford University and Ivan A. Getting of the Aerospace Corporation -- by awarding them the 2003 Charles Stark Draper Prize. The announcement was made at a National Press Club briefing in Washington, D.C., and can be viewed at

Significant achievement

Presented annually since 1989, the $500,000 Draper Prize recognizes engineers whose accomplishments have significantly impacted society.

"Many of engineering's great achievements become so much a part of our lives that they are taken for granted," said NAE president William A. Wulf. "I think that, without question, GPS is destined for this distinction. It is an achievement that deservedly joins the ranks of previous Draper Prize honors, such as the semiconductor microchip, the jet engine, satellite technology, fiber optics and the Internet."

Parkinson -- the Edward C. Wells Professor in the School of Engineering, Emeritus, at Stanford -- earned his doctoral degree at the university in 1966. Six years later, he was chosen to direct the fledgling Department of Defense GPS program.

NEA officials singled out Parkinson for his pivotal role as program director in designing the original GPS system architecture, as well as for its engineering, development, demonstration and implementation, adding, "He continues to work on GPS at Stanford University, further honing its accuracy and using it to control such things as helicopters, farm tractors and spacecraft."

GPS initially was developed for the guidance, navigation and control of military aircraft, missiles and satellites -- and to aid people on the ground.

"Now it has become commonplace in many everyday applications and has fundamentally changed navigation for various modes of transportation through its capability to give precise positioning coordinates and very accurate real time," NAE officials said, noting that GPS technology now is routinely used in air traffic control systems, ships, trucks and cars, and for emergency situations on land and sea.

In addition to his work at the Stanford GPS Lab, Parkinson is co-principal investigator of the Stanford-based Gravity Probe B program -- a NASA-funded test effort to validate Einstein's General Theory of Relativity using orbiting gyroscopes.

GPS visionary

Parkinson, chairman of the board of trustees of the California-based Aerospace Corporation, shared the prize with Getting, the former president of Aerospace, who first envisioned a system in the 1950s that would use satellite transmitters to pinpoint locations anywhere on Earth with extreme accuracy. "After it was shown that GPS could work, Getting became a tireless advocate for making sure the complex system was actually built," NAE officials noted.

Established in 1964, NAE is an independent, nonprofit institution that operates under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences in 1863. Members are elected by their peers for their seminal contributions to engineering. The Draper Prize was established to increase public understanding of the contributions of engineering and technology.