Trimble GPS Tutorial - Advanced Concepts

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Advanced Concepts


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Code-Phase vs Carrier-Phase

The words "Code-Phase" and "Carrier-Phase" may sound like electronic mumbo-jumbo but, in fact, they just refer to the particular signal that we use for timing measurements. Using the GPS carrier frequency can significantly improve the accuracy of GPS.

The concept is simple but to understand it let's review a few basic principles of GPS.

Remember that a GPS receiver determines the travel time of a signal from a satellite by comparing the "pseudo random code" it's generating, with an identical code in the signal from the satellite.

The receiver slides its code later and later in time until it syncs up with the satellite's code. The amount it has to slide the code is equal to the signal's travel time.

The problem is that the bits (or cycles) of the pseudo random code are so wide that even if you do get synced up there's still plenty of slop.

Consider these two signals:

If you compared them logically you'd say they matched. When signal A is a one, signal B is a one. When signal A is a zero, signal B is a zero.

But you can see that while they match they're a little out of phase. Notice that, even though they are the same most of the time, signal A may change state a little before signal B. This is the source of positioning error.

That's the problem with code-phase GPS. It's comparing pseudo random codes that have a cycle width of almost a microsecond. And at the speed of light a microsecond is almost 300 meters of error!

Code-phase GPS isn't really that bad because receiver designers have come up with ways to make sure that the signals are almost perfectly in phase. Good machines get with in a percent or two. But that's still at least 3-6 meters of error.

Survey receivers beat the system by starting with the pseudo random code and then move on to measurements based on the carrier frequency for that code. This carrier frequency is much higher so its pulses are much closer together and therefore more accurate.

If you're rusty on the subject of carrier frequencies consider your car radio. When you tune to 94.7 on the dial you're locking on to a carrier frequency that's 94.7 MHz.

Obviously we can't hear sounds at 94 million cycles a second. The music we hear is a modulation (or change) in this carrier frequency. So when you hear someone sing an "A" note on the radio you're actually hearing the 94.7 MHz carrier frequency being varied at a 440 cycle rate.

GPS works in the same way. The pseudo random code has a bit rate of about 1 MHz but its carrier frequency has a cycle rate of over a GHz (which is 1000 times faster!)

At the speed of light the 1.57 GHz GPS signal has a wavelength of roughly twenty centimeters, so the carrier signal can act as a much more accurate reference than the pseudo random code by itself. And if we can get to within one percent of perfect phase like we do with code-phase receivers we'd have 3 or 4 millimeter accuracy! Yeeow!

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