Digital mapmaking innovations are revolutionizing travel

GPS for scuba divers, cars with built-in holographic maps, and other new tech mean ’you’ll never get lost again.‘

Before electronic navigation systems, getting around wasn’t always easy. Paper maps, printouts from MapQuest, and TripTiks from AAA (remember those?) helped people find their way, but it wasn’t always easy. Fold-out maps were cumbersome, and let’s face it: You had to know where you were to begin with.

“Now you open your map app and it will give you a blue dot exactly where you are,” notes Frank Biasi, digital development manager for National Geographic Maps.

Computer-assisted navigation is evolving so quickly that those blue dots will soon be joined by other advances: augmented reality glasses that “paint” virtual arrows on sidewalks; scuba masks that guide you back to the dive boat; car windshields that usher you safely through the fog. Innovations using GPS, AI, and other technology are making navigation easier and safer. 

Travelers are about to find their wayfinding enhanced, directed, and curated by systems that know their interests and can determine their precise locations, even in GPS dead zones. 

“In the future, you’ll never get lost again,” says Alexey Panyov, founder and CEO of Navigine, a geo-positioning software company. “Even if you want to.”

No signal? Not anymore

The ability to navigate by mobile technology took a giant step forward in 2000, when the United States government stopped scrambling signals from the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) network. This meant anyone with a receiver could get accurate location information. 

Not long afterward, smartphones gave users access to precise location information, and humans seemingly lost the ability to get anywhere without step-by-step directions. In fact, a 2019 MIT study found that respondants valued digital maps as the third most important service of the internet—behind only search and email functions.

Even if you have no cell reception, your phone knows where you are thanks to the GPS constellation of 24 satellites (plus spares) owned and operated by the U.S. military. The system’s precursor, NAVSTAR, launched in 1978it was unavailable to civilians until 1983. Even then, the civilian signal was inaccurate until the government stopped scrambling it in 2000.

In the years since, the rest of the world has caught up. Russia, China, and Europe now have their own GPS-like satellite arrays, which send publicly available signals to anyone with a receiver. This means remote areas are steadily gaining more coverage. Modern satellites have become better at finding angles into canyons and through dense forest canopies—two places where GPS tends to disappear. 

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“Ideally they’re all working together, and there are more data points and fewer places in the world where GPS is not good,” says Jim Carrier, author of Here We Are: The History, Meaning, and Magic of GPS.

Better satellite coverage is good news for travelers who like to explore less-traveled places like the Congo and the high Arctic. It also could make remote wilderness destinations safer, says Sangeeta Prasad, cofounder of tour agency Chalo Africa. “If you get into trouble, you’ll be able to transmit your exact coordinates to whoever is coming to rescue you,” she says.

Improved GPS coverage may make it easier for hikers on established trails to find the way, but in the world’s wilder places, technology will never replace local expertise, Prasad says. “If you think you can self-drive in the Sahara with a GPS, forget it. You need a local guide who can read the sand, or you will get stuck in no time,” she says.

Advances in technology are making GPS more accurate in major cities, where skyscrapers block and reflect satellite signals. In December 2020, Google began using artificial intelligence and 3D map modeling to correct these kinds of location errors. Now, when you emerge from the subway in places like Manhattan or Mexico City, you’ll be more likely to know where you are and which direction to walk.

The great indoors

Travelers who get lost in airports or shopping malls know that electronic navigation rarely works indoors. That’s because GPS radio signals are stopped by walls. The solution? Indoor “beacons”—Bluetooth devices that constantly broadcast their current location. Once rare and expensive, this technology is now built into many smart devices and WiFi routers. 

While radio waves are helpful, the biggest advances in indoor navigation may come from visible light. Smart phones will use their cameras and machine learning to interpret scenes, essentially becoming a substitute for the human eye and brain. 

Google has already implemented just such a system with its “Live View” feature, which is available in the Zurich, Switzerland airport, some Japanese malls, and Australian transit stations

Live View works outdoors, on about 10 million miles of public roads around the world. To check it out, simply open up Google Maps on your iPhone, iPad, or Android device. Map directions to a destination, choose “walking,” in the mode of transportation toolbar, and then, in the bottom center of your screen, tap the Live View icon.

Once these systems become widespread, you won’t have to hold a cell phone in front of you as you navigate. Rather, extra layers of information will be integrated into car windshields, glasses, or perhaps, contact lenses, says Vitaly Ponomarev, CEO of WayRay. His company recently unveiled a concept car that projects holographic directions onto its windshield making it seem as if arrows are painted directly onto the streets. 

“For normal cars that still require drivers, this is the most natural way to visualize navigation. It’s less distracting than looking at a GPS navigation system because we simply integrate all the hints into reality,” Ponomarev says.

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Directions are just the beginning. Augmented-reality glasses or car windshields might help you explore new cities, directing you down an alley to a secret jazz club or pointing out interesting features at historic sites. “Just think of all the helpful information, discovery capabilities, and enriched travel opportunities augmented reality will provide,” says Biasi. “Or, depending on how things go, [it] could become overrun with advertisements, just like the real and digital worlds today.”

You can preview this future with expensive smart glasses like the ThinkReality A3 Smart and Magic Leap 1, but outside of Live View, there’s not much augmented reality content available yet.

Under the sea

Even with these advances, one major navigation dead zone remains: anything that’s under the surface of deep water. GPS satellite signals are no match for the ocean or large lakes, keeping scuba divers stuck in the dark ages, with only compasses to guide them. In low visibility conditions, this can be a real problem, says Gene Bivol, a cofounder of the underwater GPS company DiveNET.

“It’s easy to get disoriented when you’re weightless and moving in three dimensions,” he says. “Plus, you have a lot of other things going on: You’re controlling your breathing, you’re managing your buoyancy, and you have no navigation information at all besides a compass.”

Bivol’s company has come up with a small-scale solution to that problem. The DiveNET GPS system (which costs between $5,000 and $15,000) includes four buoys that, when deployed by a dive boat, commutate with GPS satellites to locate themselves, and then use sonar to track divers within about a one-mile range. The divers wear receivers that show them, in real time, where the other members of their group are, where the dive boat is, and points of interest on the ocean floor. “In the future, you might even have an underwater drone videotape your dive for you,” Bivol says.

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The U.S. military has been working on a similar system of sonar-emitting buoys that can function like GPS satellites, but experts say that this kind of grid is impractical. 

“I don’t see them being able to crank up the acoustic levels to a point where they can cover hundreds of square miles of ocean. Even if they can, there’s the risk of acoustic disruption in marine life, especially marine mammals,” says Thomas Grønfeldt Senger, a technology developer and dive guide.

Another problem with sonar is that emitting an acoustic signal requires a lot of battery power, but MIT scientists are working on a solution: piezoelectric materials that selectively reflect sounds that are already in the environment. Amazingly, these sensors are powered by sound waves, so they don’t require batteries. 

“There are a lot of potential applications. For instance, a scuba diver could use these sensors to figure out the exact place they took a particular picture,” says MIT computer science professor Fadel Adib.

In the long run, our devices will flexibly integrate multiple signals to tell us how to get where we want to go, whether we’re in the rainforest, the Mariana trench, or outer space. But, technology can fail, and a zoomed-in digital map on a phone lacks the local detail and broader regional context of a larger paper map. Biasi says physical maps and compasses aren’t going anywhere. In fact, National Geographic sold more paper maps and atlases in 2021 than in any previous year. 

“Serious travelers and outdoor adventurers who are away from power sources or going into extreme environments—those people know you need that paper map, if only as a backup,” he says. 

Sadie Dingfelder is a writer based in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, focusing on science, nature, and the arts. Follow her on Twitter or TikTok.

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