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How Does GPS Equipment Work in an Aircraft

With the help of GPS systems, pilots have no trouble navigating and reaching their destinations no matter where they are in the sky. At SAS, we are proud to offer quality aircraft parts and accessories that include electronic and GPS components. Without these essential GPS components, pilots would not be able to navigate the skies accurately and might end up missing their destinations. Since GPS systems rely on satellites, pilots can use them from anywhere on the planet at any time. Learn more about how GPS equipment works in an aircraft and the important role it plays in aviation.

Purpose of a GPS

In 1978, the US Department of Defense founded the Global Positioning System (GPS). The GPS remained solely in military hands until 1983, when the government opened the system for public use. However, the US military still uses the GPS to this day, and certain transmissions are only used by the military. The purpose of GPS was to provide a way for pilots to determine their locations from anywhere in the world. With a GPS system, pilots receive latitude, longitude, and altitude coordinates, allowing them to calculate their current location in the air.

Similar Systems

Although GPS is one of the most well-known navigational systems, there are others that exist. GPS was invented by the US, but Russia, Europe, and China also have similar navigational systems. The EU invented a system known as Galileo, and China created a system called BeiDou. Lastly, the Russian Federation created a system called GLONASS. These systems all function using radio frequencies and satellites, just like the GPS. Although there are multiple systems in existence, GPS currently provides the most accurate coordinates, so it’s used more often than the other systems.

Three GPS Segments

Now that you know about the origins of the GPS and other systems, let’s go over how GPS equipment works in an aircraft. To provide navigational information to pilots, the GPS uses three main segments. Without the space, user, or control segments, the GPS would not be able to operate correctly. The interaction between these three segments is what allows the GPS to provide such accurate information for pilots and aircraft. Below, you’ll find more information about each segment and what it contributes to the GPS system.


The first segment that the GPS uses is space. Currently, the US has 31 satellites in a medium-earth orbit, and these satellites transmit radio signals to receivers. The US placed these satellites into six evenly spaced orbitals around the earth. To determine the location of an airplane that’s in flight, the 31 satellites send signals to receivers that will determine the position of the plane. Receivers only require signals from at least four satellites to make an accurate estimation of a plane’s location and time.


Of course, these satellites and the GPS system do not operate fully on their own. A control segment is in place to monitor and fix any issues that arise with the GPS system or its satellites. There are currently six monitor stations, one master control station, and four ground antennas.


The last segment in the GPS system is the user. The user segment consists of antennas, receivers, and processors that receive and translate the signals from satellites into readable coordinates. The pilot can then use these coordinates to determine the exact location of the plane.

Types of GPS Equipment

There are multiple types of GPS equipment out there that pilots can use to connect to the system. Because there are many types of equipment, GPS training can be challenging for pilots, especially those who must learn how to operate multiple types of equipment. However, there are two categories that you can split GPS equipment into to narrow down the options. 

Permanent Equipment

Permanent equipment is the type that you find in planes. As you may suspect, this type of equipment is permanently installed within a plane and usually interacts with other flight systems. These systems are often designed for commercial aircraft, and they are only installed in approved locations within the planes. In the aircraft, the GPS consists of a control panel and display, electrical receivers, and at least one antenna.

Mobile Equipment

Unlike permanent equipment, mobile equipment is portable and uses batteries and antennas. Since this type of equipment is not directly connected with the plane, it does not interact with other systems. Usually, those in general aviation use this type of mobile equipment, while pilots in commercial aviation typically use permanent equipment that they set up inside the planes. Although mobile equipment may not be as complex as permanent equipment, it still gets the job done and provides accurate coordinates for pilots.

And that’s all there is to it! The GPS is an incredibly useful system that helps millions of pilots navigate the skies safely every year. And although the GPS usually provides accurate coordinates, it does have a few minor flaws. However, the control segment works hard to perfect the system and constantly makes updates and upgrades. For example, there used to be 24 satellites in orbit, but now there are 31 satellites in orbit that we use for the GPS. With these upgrades, the GPS will improve vastly within the next several years.

Although the GPS is a great system, it cannot work properly if your aircraft has malfunctioning equipment. At SAS, you’ll find the high-quality equipment and airplane parts you need to fly safely and efficiently. Many electronic systems within commercial planes are highly regulated by the FAA, but we do our best to provide a wide range of parts to accommodate your needs. To see if we have the airplane components you need, take a look at the current parts on our website. The easiest way to search for a specific part is to search for a part number or description. Once you have found the part, log in to your account to view prices and other details. Browse our website or give us a call today for more information.

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