Bradford Parkinson and James Spilker honored for GPS innovations


Brad Parkinson
Bradford Parkinson

BRADFORD PARKINSON, professor of aeronautics and astronautics emeritus, and JAMES SPILKER, adjunct professor of aeronautics and astronautics, along with industry engineers Hugo Fruehauf and Richard Schwartz, have received the 2019 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (QEPrize) for their pioneering work in the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

The QEPrize, one of the world’s most prestigious engineering accolades, comes with a £1 million honorarium to be shared among the team. The prize celebrates technical achievements that have had a major impact on humanity and is meant to raise the profile of engineering and inspire the next generation of engineers.

“We’re honored that two of our faculty have been recognized for helping to create a technology that has become woven into the fabric of everyday life,” said CHARBEL FARHAT, chair of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

The Global Positioning System is the world’s first global satellite radio navigation system designed to provide positioning, navigation and timing to its users. To date, it has contributed to advances in smartphone technology, aviation safety, banking, ship technology and many other navigation-based systems and applications.

Known as the “father of GPS,” Parkinson earned his PhD from Stanford in 1966. He developed a prototype for the GPS system while serving in the United States Air Force under the NAVSTAR project, a satellite-based initiative designed to create a better navigation system for the U.S. military. After serving in the military and joining the private sector, Parkinson became a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford in 1984, where he steered the development of several technological advancements, including farm tractors with full automatic GPS control and the first blind landing of a commercial aircraft using GPS. Among his many recognitions are the Marconi Award, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Medal of Honor and the Draper Award.

James Spilker

Spilker earned his undergraduate, master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering at Stanford in just five years, thanks to fellowship support, in gratitude for which he will donate his share of the QEPrize to the school. His pioneering work in signal timing technology contributed to the development of the original GPS architecture and improved the overall accuracy of the entire system. Spilker developed and built the receiver that processed the first GPS satellite system and operated a special on-orbit GPS satellite. He also developed the code/carrier receivers for the GPS control segment, which must precisely track GPS satellite locations from horizon to horizon. He co-invented the split spectrum mode, a separating system that allows civilian and military signals to operate under different spectra, a capability now used by billions of people worldwide.

Spilker joined Stanford’s faculty in 2001 as a consulting professor for the departments of Electrical Engineering and Aeronautics and Astronautics. While at Stanford, he invented the new and more precise L5 GPS protocol for civilian aircraft, which he donated at no cost to the Federal Aviation Administration The accomplishment earned him the Burka Award from the Institute of Navigation (ION). In 2005, Spilker co-founded the Stanford Research Center for Position, Navigation and Time (PNT). He has co-founded three start-up companies and authored or co-authored three books on GPS, PNT and satellite communications. Among other honors, he is a former member of the Engineering Advisory Board for the School of Engineering, a current member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Life Fellow of IEEE, which recently bestowed on him its Thomas Edison Award.

The James and Anna Marie Spilker Engineering and Applied Sciences Building in the Science and Engineering Quad is named in his and his wife’s honor.

Sharing the QEPrize are Hugo Fruehauf, who in the mid-1970s was chief engineer and systems manager for Rockwell International’s GPS satellite, and Richard Schwartz, who was the program manager on Rockwell’s GPS Satellite.