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Happy Belated Veterans Day: GIs and GPS

2012 November 20

By Joe Summerlin

A few years ago, I found myself trekking along Town Branch Creek in Bolivar, Missouri noting areas that were impaired, taking photos, and storing waypoints on my smartphone. I mused at how easy it was to load information and tell a story about this little watershed from a device that fit firmly in the palm of my hand. Then it dawned on me. Just fifteen years earlier, I had witnessed the birth of handheld GPS devices in the U.S. Army. I then thought, “I am getting old. Maybe some of the younger generation would like to know about the predecessor to devices they take for granted today.” This blog will discuss the capabilities of handheld GPS devices in the early 1990’s, specifically the Precision Lightweight GPS Receiver (PLGR.)

The PLGR or “plugger” was one of the first mass produced handheld GPS devices used by conventional forces in the U.S. Army. It saw its first real combat test in 1991 during the Gulf War. The concept was simple: use existing military and secure government satellites to orient a soldier on the battlefield. At the time there were 24 satellites in orbit and this puppy needed three for accurate lat/long data or four for lat/long plus elevation data.

Many of the negative characteristics of the design of this beast were made by engineers to ensure longevity and meet the requirements set by U.S. Army leaders. Note the lack of a full color display. This was designed on purpose using liquid crystal displays to ensure an ambient light source would not give away the positions of soldiers on the field. This also made it incredibly difficult to read where you were. The display was also compatible with night vision goggles. Unfortunately, I always peeked under my goggles and pushed the “light” button or used a red-filtered lens and shined it on the display.

The PLGR was bulky, boxy and not a product to sell to the masses. The buttons were clunky and there were only twelve. In order to store a waypoint you had to arrow through a bunch of poorly written menus. Sometimes when you wanted to store a waypoint, you would find yourself scrolling through a menu for 10 minutes. When you did actually store a waypoint, you would have to clunk your way back to the main menu by using a series of guesses, some luck, and maybe some sort of magic ritual. My secret was to hit the power button and wait for the 7 minute reboot.

I haven’t even touched on the size of this monster. Hand held – yes, only if you had Shaquille O’Neal-sized hands. The PLGR weighed a mere 2.75 pounds or about the equivalent of one canteen of water.

The PLGR was large for two reasons. First, micro technology was not as advanced, and second, soldiers lose small items. It used 634 AA batteries (maybe it just seemed like it did) and the battery life was about 2 hours. We learned to conserve battery power by turning it off and using the maps in our pockets. Only when we were lost (which never happened because we are the U.S. Army) did we pull it out to get our bearings.

Well, there you have it, the smartphone’s grandpappy. Next time you are in the car listening to that speak n’ spell voice demanding “TURN RIGHT,” just think to yourself, if it weren’t for the military and those veterans that tested and used this stuff I might have just made a left turn at Albuquerque.


Joe Summerlin is an Environmental Scientist in EPA Region 7 who works with the Agency’s NEPA program. He served in the U.S. Army for 14 years as a Cavalry Scout and a CH-47D Chinook  helicopter pilot.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Kevin Snowden permalink
    December 12, 2012

    Back during the Great Flood of 1993, I was working as an EPA contractor. My company was tasked with collecting water and sediment samples along flooded rivers in EPA Region 7.

    Prior to our deployment, my co-workers and I reported to the EPA Region 7 Laboratory to receive training on the agency’s GPS equipment. The training lasted four hours; however, that was not as interesting as the size of the GPS equipment. It consisted of a three-foot diameter antenna that had to be set up on a surveyor’s tripod and a 19-inch rack which contained the electronics. All in all, I believe that this equipment weighed about 50 pounds. Needless to say, it was fun setting this equipment up in the field when you were up to your knees in mud!

    I believe that the procedures called for you to link up to three of the seven satellites available as well as the EPA Region 7 Laboratory’s GPS base unit. At times, it would take 15-20 minutes before you could triangulate your position. Also, at the time we were recording these locations, the accuracy was poor as the actual location may have been as much as 30 feet away from the recorded location!

    It is good to know that technology has progressed greatly within the past 20 years!

    • jrobicha permalink*
      December 12, 2012

      Ha I remember those days…well a little later…I was a contractor in 1995 and was still doing GPS of Iowa RCRA sites. By then it was a little easier. You could stick the antenna on top of the car, but you still had to wait at least 5 minutes for the PDOP (Positional Dilution of Precision) to get into the acceptable range. One thing most people dont remember, was that with all of the commercial units there was a displacement of the true lat long, which I think might have been the reason we had a base station at the Funston Lab. Only the military received unadulterated GPS readings…our readings had to be post-processed to obtain the real lat longs, after the readings came back from the field. We have come quite aways…

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