The Tragic Origins of GPS Navigation

Posted by Adriano Teixeira In: Technology, Travel

The date is August 31, 1983. Flight 007 from Korean Airlines, a Boeing 747 airliner, has just finished refueling in Anchorage, Alaska, after previously departing from New York City to Seoul, South Korea. None of its 246 passengers and 23 crew members would ever reach their intended destination.

The Cold War was particularly hot at the time. The Soviets, then led by General Secretary Yuri Andropov, suspected the U.S. was planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike as a way to assure “victory” in a conflict that felt inevitable. Earlier that year, American aircraft were spotted flying over Soviet military installations located in the Kuril Islands. Despite their best efforts, Soviet forces were unable to shoot down the “sky invaders” and tensions between both superpowers were at their highest since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 62.

During the flight from Anchorage to Seoul, the Korean airliner continuously deviated from its course. To this day it’s not clear if this was due to human error or equipment failure, but the one thing we do know is that on that dreadful night, the flight unknowingly flew off track into Soviet airspace, right in the middle of a very tense time.

Another key element to this story is the fact that 10 days earlier, strong arctic winds had knocked down the soviet radar apparatus on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Local authorities falsely reported they had successfully repaired it; had it been properly operational, it would have enabled the soviet air command plenty of time to investigate and properly identify the plane as a civilian aircraft.

And yet, this was one of those occasions where everything that can, does go wrong and 4 Soviet air-fighters were deployed to engage the invader.

The Soviet Air Defense Forces were very eager to prove their efficiency after the recent failures to stop American spy planes from flying over their restricted airspace; after coming in sight of the aircraft, a soviet fighter pilot fired warning shots that were probably unseen by the airliner crew. This was in the dead of night. The warning shots coincided with Boeing’s ascent to a higher altitude for fuel economy, and this was perceived as an evasive maneuver by the Soviet pilot.

The use of force was authorized, and the civilian aircraft was shot down by two air-to-air missiles that later crashed into the sea. There were no survivors.

Later the same year, President Ronald Reagan announced that once completed, the Global Positioning System (GPS)  would no longer be for the exclusive use of the American military, but freely available for civilian use (although in a restricted manner) to avoid future navigational errors.

The early ’90s saw the first cars with built-in GPS navigation systems, while the early 2000s witnessed the widespread use of GPS navigation units (following the removal of the GPS military signal restrictions by the Clinton Administration), including NDrive’s very own PND’s (Personal Navigation Devices).

Later, when smartphones came around and GPS receivers became a common feature on every phone, NDrive smoothly transitioned from hardware to software, being among the first companies to tackle the App Market in the navigation category.

During its almost 15 years of history, NDrive has developed a brand; Built hardware; Designed custom-made navigation solutions for prestigious brands; Developed search-based business models and is now at the forefront of developing multiple location-based solutions through some very interesting partnerships with major industry players.

Through uncertain times and market changes, NDrive has managed to remain a well-renowned company that respects its workers, delivers its products, and manages to adapt to all scenarios due to a focus on innovation and constant investment in R&D.

Unlike the popular saying, we are not here just for a good time; we’re here for a long time. But let us not forget to be always vigilant, because sometimes, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. May this historical tragedy be a constant reminder of how important our work fundamentally is.

Adriano Teixeira
Loves writing, except biographical information.