The Open Positioning System, a student project by Philipp Ronnenberg, is an attempt to develop an alternative to GPS.

Ronnenberg’s OPS determines your coordinates using a simple seismic sensor, instead of signals from a satellite.

You see, these sensors can read baseline seismic frequencies from nearby sources--like turbines and power plants.

That means you can measure how far away a seismic frequency lies.

And if there are at least three sources nearby, you can triangulate your position--just like with satellite signals.

Right now, the OPS is just an in-progress idea in Ronnenberg’s second-year Interaction Design Coursework.

But demonstrating that it works--here, a sensor gets a reading off of a wall--is half the battle.

He hopes to build up a community of participants to help test the concept.

Can This Design Student Build An Open-Source Alternative To GPS?

The fledgling Open Positioning System uses seismic frequencies generated by factories, turbines, and power plants to triangulate your location.

Maps are power. Those who draw them control the public’s access to the world at a fundamental level—for example, in the 1500s, maps of the New World were worth their weight in gold. These days, we rely on the Global Positioning System, developed by the Department of Defense during the Cold War. Though it’s publicly accesible, GPS is still a closed system, meaning the government can shut it down or edit it as they see fit.

But as people push for more transparency in government, is it time to think about a more transparent navigation system? Philipp Ronnenberg, an interaction design student at the Royal College of Art, thinks so. At the RCA’s biannual Work in Progress show this month, Ronnenberg introduced his fledgling Open Positioning System, an alternative to GPS. "At the moment, we are bound to the Americans’ military GPS and network companies," he says. "The technology is closed at the moment and can be curated or shut down at any time." The OPS, on the other hand, seeks to establish a reliable positioning system that’s totally independent of the government, corporations, and even satellites.

To understand how OPS is different, it helps to know a bit about how GPS works (if you do, forgive my ignorance). When you open Google Maps, it triangulates your location by measuring how long it took several nearby satellites to send a signal to the receiver—a principle called trilateration that you probably learned in geometry. Ronnenberg has come up with a radical alternative to using signals from satellites. Instead of measuring how long it takes a signal to move from Lower Earth Orbit to your phone, OPS measures nearby seismic frequencies. Not the kind caused by earthquakes—these are smaller, predictable, man-made disturbances emitted by power plants and turbines. But they’re still measurable, which means that anyone carrying a sensor can pick up frequencies and determine their location.

According to Ronnenberg, he’s never heard of anyone using a seismic sensor in this way. "I came to this idea because I was researching animal communication," he told me over email. "Elephants and some spiders can communicate through the ground by producing seismic activity which is then transmitted and received." Like those arthropods, Ronnenberg’s system can pick up seismic frequencies from any surface in contact with the ground—walls, tables, or the floorboards. The setup is not without flaws: the user, obviously, needs to be nearby a machine or power plant emitting a noise, and readings can get muddled by city noise. And similarly to GPS, the sensor needs at least three readings to produce a reliable location. Taking all of that in stride, it’s still a fairly remarkable idea that could, presumably, be honed to perfection.

The OPS will rely on a whole lot of beta testers to get off the ground. On openps.info, Ronnenberg is operating a forum as well as a quick-start set of instructions that (to my n00b eyes) seem to require a bit of engineering know-how. But the pieces themselves—a low-cost sensor made by Piezo and an Arduino board—would probably be tackle-able to anyone willing to watch a few YouTube instruction videos.

Keep in mind that the OPS is a student project, presented at the midpoint of the semester, so it’s more of a proof of concept than a fully fleshed-out platform. For example, the seismic solution takes care of only half of the system: locating you. The maps themselves are another issue. But Ronnenberg hopes that with enough time and participants, OPS can generate reliable maps that will make the system truly independent. Check out the website here.

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10 Comments

  • Daniel Dogeanu

    That's not very practical. I have a better idea! You can set a grid of fixed base-stations (like cell-phone towers are), measure and record their exact positions with the aid of the existing GPS system and after that, all you do is to broadcast signals, like GPS satellites do. It would work basically in the same way as the current GPS is working, but instead of satellites on orbit, you have fixed stations on the ground. This thing can already be done with cell-phone towers, but the general public use if forbidden. They only do that when police wants to locate a dangerous criminal with the help of its cell phone (if he doesn't have GPS on it).

  • Alexis Alexis

    This is already used in nearly every smartphone that exists and it's called A-GPS.

  • Tom

    How would this work in a moving car? I would imagine that the car vibration would override any other vibration readings. Doesn't look too practical to me.

  • asperous

    Possibly, but like a microphone can pick up a wide variety of frequencies, if someone is screaming directly into the microphone it can't pick up anything else.

    The car's vibrations would overload the sensor for sure.

  • Alexis Alexis

    Vibration frequencies emitted by moving cars are spreading on a different range than the ones emitted by the references, just like tuning with radio frequencies. Am I right?

  • Al

    It's worth mentioning that GPS can't work underground or indoors.

    This, if it works, would theoretically work _better_ underground or indoors (maybe not on higher floors).

    So even without tin-hat or doomsday scenarios, there's a real niche this could potentially fill. Underground navigation is a big deal for drilling companies. Or fit it to those robo-bug things that scurry through earthquake rubble looking for survivors.

  • mttorley

     So... if we're in a situation where the US Military turns OFF the GPS system... would that NOT be the same situation where factories and such would be shut down?

    Very Creative Idea, however it solves a problem with a solution that would be erroneous at the onset of the need of said solution.

  • Al

    For me the really amazing thing about this is the fact that it's possible for a student to MacGuyver together something based on low-cost family friendly bits and bobs like piezos and arduino boards that can, more or less, in principle do something that up until now was only possible using a massively expensive satellite programme.

    There still are amazing things out there waiting to be discovered, people.

  • Kelsey

    Interesting point--it's still dependent on factors beyond the control of the average user.