RIM, GPS and the U of C

By Patrick McNaught

Research In Motion, the wireless communication device expert behind the BlackBerry, is helping to fund the University of Calgary’s $1.3 million global positioning system project. The project will study ways to improve GPS capabilities in environments where satellite signals are not as strong, including inside buildings.

GPS allows electronic receivers to identify their current location. These devices receive signals from GPS satellites to determine distance from each satellite in a process known as triangulation.

In an ideal environment, GPS may be accurate from three to five meters. However, once the GPS receiver leaves an ideal location, the signal becomes a lot weaker. The university project will analyze what the signal looks like in non-ideal locations.

RIM, the Waterloo, Ontario-based company, has invested in the university in hopes that the research will enable them to expand into the multimillion dollar location-based services market.

“LBS are an emerging market that is ready to explode,” said U of C geomatics professor Mark Petovello. “Basically, it’s any type of service or application that relies on position.”

These services can identify the person or object the user is interested in finding. For example, a traveller unfamiliar with a city would be able to find the nearest bank, restaurant, hotel or even the location of an old friend they were meeting, explained Petovello.

Robert Crow, RIM’s vice-president of industry and university relations, seconded that LBS will play a significant role in the future development of smartphones globally.

Listed as the fastest growing company by Fortune, RIM is optimistic about their BlackBerry gaining a competitive advantage over its major opponent, Apple’s iPhone. In the face of the recession, smartphones have seen double-digit growth this year. New applications, such as LBS, aim to appeal to a broader consumer base, rather than just the BlackBerry’s business-related users.

RIM is contributing $337,500 to support the U of C project. The remaining funding for the three-year initiative will come from the federal and provincial governments.

There were a number of reasons RIM decided to help fund the U of C’s GPS project, explained Petovello. The university hosts one of the world’s top centers for research in geomatics engineering, the highly specialized field that collects, analyzes and manages data based on its location.

Alberta also happens to be the nation’s second-largest exporter of navigation satellite systems. Additionally, in July the U of C, the University of Lethbridge and the University of Alberta jointly created Tecterra, a $50-million research centre with a geomatics department addressing land and water issues in Alberta.

“It is really exciting, RIM is a wonderful company to be working with,” said Petovello. “Alberta, and Calgary in particular, has become a hub in Canada for these types of technologies. From a provincial standpoint, this is one of [RIM’s] first forays into western Canada. We are honoured and hope to forge a relationship that goes on after our current project.”

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