navigation system

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Street navigation by smartphone with OsmAnd , an open source routing program with free map data from OpenStreetMap

A navigation system is a technical system that uses position determination ( satellite , radio , GSM or inert or autonomous system) and geographic information (topology, road, air or sea maps) to guide you to a selected location or route, taking into account desired criteria.


The actual system, based on radio navigation , is usually in two parts. It consists of a receiver unit that examines the radio signals from several encoded transmitters for their transit time . Based on this data, it calculates its current location (for delimitation, see also inertial navigation system ). Almost all of the navigation devices available today use global navigation satellite systems such as GPS , GLONASS , Beidou or Galileo to determine their position.

The reliable calculation is possible as soon as three signals are received, because only then can inevitable clock errors in the receiver be compensated. With a fourth signal, the sea level can also be determined. If further satellite signals are available, this increases the precision of the calculation. This gives the geographical position in latitude and longitude , with the accuracy today being a few meters. The system is usually supplemented by an electronic compass , so that in addition to the position, the direction of movement of the user is known. With the inclusion of the Doppler effect, it is also possible to calculate the current speed of the receiver.

Navigation systems transfer this data to digital maps and can thus not only specify the position in coordinates, but also generate a graphic, more user-friendly image of the position in a digital map. The presence of map material in the navigation system makes it possible to obtain a route from the current location to the desired destination after entering target coordinates. It does not show the straight line between the starting position and the destination, but a route via traffic routes as they are stored in the map material, which was determined by means of a so-called routing process . It is therefore possible to have the navigation system guide you to your destination even in an unknown environment. The route recommendations are usually given on the display and spoken directions for turning.

The calculation of a route via the traffic routes of road traffic, in which a large number of roads often lead to the desired destination, place high demands on the system. Traffic routing such as bridges, one-way streets, dead ends, ferries or the like must be observed. Since speed limits and expected average speeds also have to be observed in road traffic, almost all navigation systems offer the option of calculating routes according to various criteria, for example minimizing driving time, minimizing driving distance, avoiding highways, avoiding toll roads.


The first navigation systems were the so-called LORAN-C (Long Range Navigation), which was developed at the beginning of the Second World War and initially served as a navigation aid for combat aircraft, as well as the Decca originally called "QM" , which was used for maritime navigation.

LORAN-C consists of 19 broadcasting stations that are distributed around the world. One station serves as the main transmitter, the others as a secondary transmitter. The position can be calculated from the time difference between the signals and determined using a map.

For maritime navigation, OMEGA was a radio navigation system for global positioning that was in operation from 1968 to 1997.

Today most systems are based on the global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) such as GPS , GLONASS , Beidou or Galileo . The use began in the field of air traffic and then expanded to include shipping . Since the 1990s, navigation systems have also found their way into other areas, e.g. B. road traffic . Around 2000, outdoor areas such as hiking , cycling and geocaching were added .

Navigation systems are also used in agriculture and road construction, sometimes with improved accuracy in the cm range thanks to RTK measurement .

The current satellite navigation systems mostly consist of a combination of a GNSS receiver and an electronically stored map. However, there are also navigation systems that download the required map information from the Internet, e.g. B. Google Maps on smartphones .

Automotive navigation systems


In 1932, the Iter car was introduced in Italy ( proper spelling : Iter Avto ; analogously for "The way of the car"). It was an early forerunner of today's navigation devices. However, due to the rather small number of cars on the streets at the time, not many devices were sold.

Iter Avto, an early navigation device (1932)

The operating principle of the Iter Avto consisted of displaying a predetermined route. This was transferred to a roll of paper and placed in the Iter Avto. The system is connected to the drive of the vehicle. Depending on the speed, the roll was then unwound slower or faster. The driver could see the next section of the route ahead of him through a window in the device. The condition for the correct functioning was that exactly this route was actually traveled, as there were no other sensors apart from the route recording. Navigation devices that still use this technology today are road books that are used on classic car, bicycle and motorcycle tours.

In 1981, Honda launched a car navigation system, the Electro Gyrocator , for the first time in cooperation with Alpine Electronics . In the rear of the vehicle was a vacuum tank in which an angle of rotation sensor adopted from aviation recorded changes in direction. Together with a distance sensor, it delivered a signal from which the on-board computer calculated a line corresponding to the distance covered, which was displayed on a monochrome monitor in the center console of the car. For geographic orientation, the driver had to stretch a transparent map in front of the monitor and align the route displayed with the corresponding course of the road on the map. However, the electro gyrocator was not yet a navigation system in today's sense, as it could neither determine the absolute location of the vehicle nor make suggestions to the driver for choosing a route.

In 1982, Blaupunkt GmbH in Hildesheim developed the "Electronic Traffic Guide for Motorists" EVA for short. The location was based on detection using wheel sensors. The user received the driving instructions with the help of a voice output. EVA was officially presented in 1983. It was thus the first self-sufficient navigation system.

In 1984 VDO presented the City-Pilot system in cooperation with a road map publisher . The core of this device, advertised as an "electronic navigation system", was a geomagnetic field sensor that determined the approximate position of the vehicle. Each side of the map contained a barcode with the coordinates belonging to the center of the respective map section. The barcode could be recorded via a reader, which meant that it was not possible to precisely locate the street, but only to navigate the associated map section. The VDO system supports the driver in navigating by showing him the compass direction and the distance (as the crow flies) to the destination map section.

In 1985, the Californian company Etak brought the navigator onto the market, which still worked without GPS data. After entering the position using a digitized map on a small, green glowing screen, the navigation computer used two wheel sensors and a compass to orient itself in the digitally stored road network. Due to the small storage capacity, data had to be transferred from a data cassette recorder to the device again and again , which made operation cumbersome. As the company's financial possibilities were limited, it later concentrated on the production of digital maps and sold device licenses to Blaupunkt (Germany), Clarion (Japan) and Delco (USA).

In 1987, Toyota introduced the world's first CD-ROM -based car navigation systems to the Crown .

In 1989, Bosch brought the TravelPilot IDS onto the market through its subsidiary Blaupunkt . This system navigated using information from wheel sensors and a stored digital road map. Pioneer followed in 1990 with the first GPS-supported car navigation system.

In 1990, the world's first built-in GPS navigation system was introduced in the luxury Mazda Eunos Cosmo coupe , the Car Control System (CCS). In 1991, Toyota introduced the first factory-integrated GPS navigation systems (including color monitors) in the Crown and Soarer , and from 1992 introduced the world's first with voice output in the Celsior . The first car from a European manufacturer to be offered with a navigation system ex works was the BMW 7 Series in 1994 .

With the elimination of the deliberate deterioration of the GPS signal by the US military in 2000, purely GPS- aided navigation also became affordable in cars. Before this point in time, the accuracy was around 100 m, which is why additional aids (wheel sensors, gyro compass ) were necessary for precise navigation, especially in urban areas . Today these are only necessary to maintain navigation under poor reception conditions (e.g. in "street canyons" or tunnels).

Today there are GNSS-supported navigation systems in the private customer sector in the form of fixed car installations (e.g. third-party car radios), as transportable stand-alone devices or as software extensions for PCs , PDAs or smartphones . After z. B. Google Maps offers free maps and routing, the maps can also be saved for offline operation, and the user data is based on the latest traffic information, the use is widespread.


In the event of a brief signal failure (tunnel), systems are required that extrapolate the current position.

The ideal solution would be an inertial component that interpolates its position using information from an inertial system after the radio signal has ceased to exist. Such systems are used in aircraft ( INS ) and can be used there for autonomous navigation. However, such systems are very expensive and precise enough for vehicles with a high dynamic in their movement (frequent change of direction and speed) only with great effort.

Permanently installed systems in motor vehicles (factory installations) also bridge areas without satellite contact with wheel sensors that can track the distance covered relatively precisely and change of direction with sufficient accuracy.

In the case of mobile devices, the software has to perform this calculation: If the signal fails, these systems assume that the driver is sticking to the specified route and does not change his speed.

The main specialty of car navigation systems is route planning, which in this form and above all in this complexity is neither required in shipping nor in aviation.


As already mentioned above, navigation systems can also be used to navigate in unknown areas. After the device has all the necessary data available (current position, current map material and desired destination), no further operation is necessary. A frequent look at the map to determine the position using street names is completely unnecessary, provided the system works properly, which saves time and effort.

Modern systems also receive TMC or TMCpro and, in the event of traffic jams, calculate a detour route independently or on request . Not only the presence of a handicap is seen as the reason for the diversion, but the expected delay (slow traffic, traffic jams, accidents and full closure have different values ​​due to the system, which are also manually checked via TMC) if they are affected by the reported one Disability. At the same time, a detour route is calculated and the time required to cover it is compared with the time required for the original route plus the expected delay. The navigation system only takes the message into account when it makes sense to bypass the fault (= time saving). The TMC service is particularly useful abroad, as it is no longer necessary to understand the traffic reports that have been read out or they are displayed in the desired language on the system due to a uniform international coding. However, this signal is not available (free of charge) in all countries.

Depending on the map material, so-called POIs (Points of Interests) can be controlled. These points are stored on the map with their properties (petrol station, rest stop, restaurant, etc.) and their coordinates. In order to save input time, there is often a memory available for important destinations that are often approached.

In addition, some navigation systems are equipped with a warning service for speed traps or traffic light cameras. Modern navigation systems or smartphone apps can also receive data from mobile radar controls with the help of an Internet connection via the cellular network, provided this has been reported by other users. However, the operation of such systems is prohibited in Germany according to Section 23 Paragraph 1c StVO while driving on public roads. In other countries, including Austria, it is not permitted to operate such information services while driving. However, it is legal to use such information for route planning.

Navigation systems in motor vehicles are advantageous even if a certain accumulation of accidents can be observed which can be attributed to the distraction of the driver by operating the device. The operation of the device by the driver while driving is prohibited in Germany in accordance with Section 23, Paragraph 1a of the StVO if one hand is used to operate it. Investigations have shown that, especially when driving in unknown cities, around 50% of the concentration is required for reading signposts, correctly classifying and controlling one's own position and thus for navigation. It is also assumed that up to 30% of delays in urban motor vehicle traffic, especially due to traffic jams, are caused by people looking for a specific address or a parking space. The fear of missing a descent and not finding its way back often leads less experienced drivers to risky driving maneuvers (hasty lane changes, heavy braking, etc.) and thus increases the risk of accidents.

In the meantime, extensive upgrades with subsequently uploadable software are possible for mobile PDA and PNA navigation devices. The upgrade options range from updated POI databases to reloadable applications, audio books, films and geocaching applications as well as hiking maps.

Examples of additional options in the navigation system are:


The oldest design of car navigation systems are so-called built-in devices. Various automobile manufacturers have been offering car navigation systems as optional equipment since the early 1990s. These systems consist of a GNSS antenna, which is usually mounted on the roof of the vehicle, a control unit via which the user inputs are made, a mass memory from which the map material is read, and at least one display via which the driving recommendations are output become.

With older devices, the mass storage device and the control unit are located in the trunk, the driving recommendations are given on a small display behind the steering wheel, and sometimes also acoustically on the car radio.

In modern devices, the drive and control unit are often integrated in the car radio. With sufficient RAM, the CD or DVD drive used as a mass storage device can still be used as a music player after calculating the route while driving. These devices are often higher than normal car radios (usually two DIN slots) and therefore also allow larger screens. Versions with a color screen (for example the Radio Navigation System MFD ) often show a map-like representation of the immediate or further surroundings, while devices with a monochrome display usually only show directional arrows as a travel direction symbol. The great advantage of this design is that in addition to the GNSS signal, other information such as speedometer pulses or information from a direction sensor is often available, which also allow precise positioning if the GNSS signal is too weak or completely shielded for a short time. In addition, the car speakers can be used for the directional announcements, while the volume of the radio or music playback is automatically reduced.

In spite of this, not least because of the extreme price difference and the lack of innovation on the part of vehicle manufacturers, the share of sales of portable navigation systems has increased significantly more rapidly in recent years. In 2006, approximately nine million portable navigation systems were sold in Europe, compared to four million built-in navigation systems by car manufacturers. With the widespread use of smartphones, most of which have a sufficiently large display and a precise A-GPS receiver, sales of portable navigation devices are falling steadily. Almost all known manufacturers of portable navigation systems - such as TomTom , NAVIGON or Route 66 - offer an app with an equivalent range of functions. The advantage of these devices is that the user usually carries them with him and can navigate directly to stored contact addresses. With an existing internet connection, high-resolution traffic jam information can also be called up, which - unlike TMC, for example - also takes into account small side streets.

When using navigation systems on the motorcycle, the use of a motorcycle intercom is recommended .

Many navigation systems have the disadvantage that no free selection of the map material is possible, but only maps from the respective manufacturer can be used. For this reason, the Physical Storage Format Initiative was launched, which had changed to the Navigation Data Standard Organization before 2019 . This is an association of car manufacturers, system manufacturers and map data suppliers who jointly define standard formats for navigation databases. Navigation systems that use these formats have been available since 2012.

Navigation system accidents

One source of danger is ferry connections across rivers, which some navigation systems convey as a continuous lane. If fog is added, traffic signs that point to the ferry are occasionally overlooked and the motorists end up in the river. There was a series of accidents in this regard in Cologne-Langel . In 2009 a taxi driver who was unfamiliar with the area got into the Rhine with a passenger . Both people were able to save themselves on the bank. A similar accident occurred in 2010, the two occupants of this car were also able to save themselves. When the fire brigade wanted to recover the vehicle to secure the shipping route , the firefighters discovered another vehicle wreck in the river. While cleaning this vehicle, they discovered the skeletonized body of a man who had been missing for four years.

Outdoor navigation systems

Mobile navigation system for use in the car, bicycle or on foot (size: 10 cm wide, 7 cm high)

Device types

GNSS receivers for outdoor navigation or location are usually handheld devices. They can either be worn with a bracelet on the wrist (similar to the wristwatch) or simply in the hand or with a belt loop. Some devices have special brackets with which they can be attached to the handlebars of a two-wheeled vehicle (bicycle or motorcycle). Some manufacturers offer devices that are optimized for outdoor use. They are characterized by their robust construction (waterproof, shockproof). Sometimes more suitable transflective and anti-reflective displays are used for use in sunlight . These can also be used without additional background lighting, which contributes to longer operating times.

Outdated outdoor navigation system (Bj. 2000) for use for hiking or sailing

There are special navigation systems for blind and visually impaired people that make their information accessible via voice output. These navigation systems also use satellite-based navigation via GNSS. The data input and output takes place either via a specially developed control unit or via a mobile phone.

GNSS data and maps

Many outdoor navigation systems can store digital topographic maps and use them for navigation. There are two types of digital maps: raster and vector maps. Like digital photos, raster maps consist of many small image points ( pixels ). Their map image is similar to that of paper maps, which makes orientation easier for many users. Vector maps , on the other hand, consist of points connected by lines. In older devices these are shown in a more schematic way as a map. With the elements of a vector map i. d. Usually (in contrast to raster maps) further information is linked, e.g. B. Height information or street names and classifications.

As with road maps, routes along the road network can be calculated on topographic maps . Some devices offer voice prompts to indicate the route.

Because of the high price, the marketing of map packages is an important pillar for the navigation device manufacturers. However, it is possible for most devices to use the geodata of the free OpenStreetMap (OSM) project .

Indoor navigation systems

Indoor navigation systems rely on alternative technologies due to weak GNSS signals inside buildings. The indoor localization market has grown by an average of 36.5% per year since 2014. For 2019, a size of 4.424 billion USD was forecast.

Indoor navigation is based on the technical ability to localize people or their smart devices indoors with sufficient accuracy. The localization technologies also enable so-called "asset tracking", the tracking (tracking) of goods and objects in logistics and in the manufacturing sector. In particular, asset tracking as an element of the so-called IIoT (industrial internet of things ) promises the participating companies great market opportunities.

Maps of interiors

Exact maps of interior spaces are required for navigation in space. Nowadays these three-dimensional maps are created with terrestrial laser scanners. Since this process takes a very long time and is therefore too expensive to scan all public institutions, several companies and start-ups are developing new processes. In 2013, Apple bought WiFiSlam, a company that aims to map interiors by tracking and evaluating the routes of all smartphone users through a building. The start-ups NavVis from Germany, RFSpot from California and Viametris from France manufacture a product that scans interiors up to 100 times faster than conventional laser scanners. The three companies not only rely on laser scanners, but also on high-resolution cameras that create a 360 ° view.


WLAN-based location : WiFi networks are inexpensive and widespread. However, the positioning via WiFi is still very imprecise. The signal strength of at least three hotspots or other known WLAN transmitters is measured using WiFi triangulation and the position is determined from them.

Beacon : Small signal transmitters, called beacons, are placed in the interior and send signals that can be measured by a smartphone. The data is transferred via Bluetooth.

Ultra-wideband : Ultra-wideband (UWB) is short-range radio communication based on a time of flight method. The position is determined by measuring the time of flight between an object and several receivers. Due to the high accuracy of the localization and low latency times, this technology is particularly suitable for applications in the industrial environment.

Sensors: Every smartphone now contains sensors that can measure acceleration in several spatial axes. As soon as the smartphone has recognized the initial position of the user through GNSS, WiFi or mobile data, these sensors can be used to estimate the distance covered by the user.

Geomagnetism: Sensors for magnetic fields can determine the position of the user in a two-dimensional structure through geomagnetism.

Camera: The smartphone's camera records the interior and compares the image with other photos that are stored in a database. This allows the location to be determined.

Shopping app uses VLC for indoor navigation.

VLC : Positioning based on light ( visible light communication ) offers precise technology for positioning (more precisely than 30 cm) and navigation in interiors . In doing so, data or information are transmitted using the transmission medium  light  . The frequency of the light used for transmission is in the visible range between 400  THz  (750 nm; 1 THz = 1000 GHz) and 800 THz (375 nm). Fluorescent lamps  or  LEDs  are used to generate the required light  . In 2015, Philips Lighting developed VLC to market readiness together with the German startup Favendo and developed an Indoor Positioning System (IPS) based on the technology, which in addition to directional information also includes notification and analytics. Philips uses a combination of Visible Light Communications technology,  Bluetooth  and the inertial sensors of smartphones. The technology is in commercial use in various supermarkets in France and Germany.

Provider and application examples

In 2017, Infsoft and Favendo were among the market leaders in the field of indoor navigation and indoor positioning in Germany.

Indoor navigation systems are now ready for the market and are used in many different industries. There are interesting use cases, for example, in industry, logistics, healthcare as well as at airports and train stations.

Frankfurt Airport offers its passengers and visitors, for example, beacon-based indoor navigation via an app. At various train stations, a navigation solution based on beacons supports customers of the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) every day in reaching the right track and many other points of interest by the best route. The SAP Arena and the PreZero Arena also have installations for indoor navigation that visitors can use via an app. Patients, visitors and employees can also be guided to their destination at the University Hospital Basel . In addition, mobile indoor navigation systems have been establishing themselves more and more as an element of so-called smart buildings since 2017.



So-called chart plotters have almost completely replaced classic nautical charts in commercial shipping and in part in recreational shipping .

Criticism of navigation systems

Navigation systems already result in a sometimes dramatic loss of spatial orientation. The type and design of the navigation systems also play a role in the event of an impending loss of spatial orientation. One speaks of orientation illiterate and one cabaret artist even said: “ A GPS in the car is the first step towards assisted living. "

Prof. Dirk Burghardt from the TU Dresden speaks of a 'keyhole effect' for navigation users: On the small displays on the car window or in the dashboard, they only see a small section of their surroundings while driving, they drive, but do not learn anything more about the area they are passing through. And that has consequences. Scientists from the University of Salzburg sent twenty drivers on a ten-kilometer test track, half of them equipped with a GPS, the other half with a map. The way back had to be found without tools. The result: Card users were back faster and were less likely to get lost. Apparently they had actively dealt with their surroundings during the journey there and made decisions on their own. This created a mental map in their head that they could later refer to. The navigation system users are completely different. As passive 'command recipients', they relied relatively thoughtlessly on the respective instruction, without memorizing branches or forks along the way. It took them an average of ten minutes longer to get back, and they got lost almost three times as often. "


  • Jan Wendel: Integrated navigation systems. Sensor data fusion, GPS and inertial navigation . Oldenbourg, Munich a. a. 2007, ISBN 978-3-486-58160-7

Web links

Wiktionary: Navigation system  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

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