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Writing Your Own GPS Applications: Part I

, 7 Aug 2008 CPOL
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What is it that GPS applications need to be good enough to use for in-car navigation? Also, how does the process of interpreting GPS data actually work? In this three-part series, I will cover both topics and give you the skills you need to write a commercial-grade GPS application.

“I am continually amazed by how little code is required to use atomic clocks in satellites 11,000 miles above my head.”

Sample Image - WritingGPSApplications1.jpg

Introduction

What is it that GPS applications need to be good enough to use in a commercial environment, such as in-car navigation? Also, how does the process of interpreting GPS data actually work? In this three-part series, I will cover both topics and give you the skills you need to write a commercial-grade GPS application that works with a majority of GPS devices in the industry today.

One Powerful Sentence

This first part in the series will explore the task of interpreting raw GPS data. Fortunately, the task is simplified thanks to the National Marine Electronics Association which introduced a standard for the industry, now in use by a vast majority of GPS devices. To give developers a head start, I chose to use some Visual Studio .NET source code from my “GPS.NET Global Positioning SDK” component. (The code is stripped of features like multithreading and error handling for brevity.)

NMEA data is sent as comma-delimited “sentences” which contain information based on the first word of the sentence. There are over fifty kinds of sentences, yet an interpreter really only needs to handle a few to get the job done. The most common NMEA sentence of all is the “Recommended Minimum” sentence, which begins with “$GPRMC”. Here is an example:

$GPRMC,040302.663,A,3939.7,N,10506.6,W,0.27,358.86,200804,,*1A

This one sentence contains nearly everything a GPS application needs: latitude, longitude, speed, bearing, satellite-derived time, fix status and magnetic variation.

The Core of An Interpreter

The first step in making an NMEA interpreter is writing a method which does two things: separating each sentence into its individual words and examining the first word to figure out what information is available to extract. Listing 1-1 shows the start of the interpreter class.

(Listing 1-1: The core of an NMEA interpreter is a function which divides NMEA sentences into individual words.)
'*******************************************************

'**  Listing 1-1.  The core of an NMEA interpreter

'*******************************************************

Public Class NmeaInterpreter
  ' Processes information from the GPS receiver
  Public Function Parse(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Divide the sentence into words
    Dim Words() As String = GetWords(sentence)
    ' Look at the first word to decide where to go next
    Select Case Words(0)
      Case "$GPRMC"      ' A "Recommended Minimum" sentence was found!
        ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
        Return True
      Case Else
        ' Indicate that the sentence was not recognized
        Return False
    End Select
  End Function
  ' Divides a sentence into individual words
  Public Function GetWords(ByVal sentence As String) As String()
    Return sentence.Split(","c)
  End Function
End Class

The next step is to perform actual extraction of information, starting with latitude and longitude. Latitude and longitude are stored in the form “DDD°MM’SS.S”, where D represents hours (also called “degrees”), M represents minutes, and S represents seconds. Coordinates can be displayed in shorthand, such as “DD°MM.M’” or even “DD°”. The fourth word in the sentence, “3939.7”, shows the current latitude as hours and minutes (39°39.7’), except the numbers are squished together. The first two characters (39) represent hours and the remainder of the word (39.7) represents minutes. Longitude is structured the same way, except that the first three characters represent hours (105°06.6’). Words five and seven indicate the “hemisphere”, where “N” means “North”, “W” means “West” etc. The hemisphere is appended to the end of the numeric portion to make a complete measurement. I've found that NMEA interpreters are much easier to work with as they are event-driven. This is because data arrives in no particular order. An event-driven class gives the interpreter the most flexibility and responsiveness to an application. So, I'll design the interpreter to report information using events. The first event, PositionReceived, will be raised whenever the current latitude and longitude are received. Listing 1-2 expands the interpreter to report the current position.

(Listing 1-2: The interpreter can now report the current latitude and longitude.)
'*******************************************************

'**  Listing 1-2.  Extracting information from a sentence

'*******************************************************

Public Class NmeaInterpreter
  ' Raised when the current location has changed
  Public Event PositionReceived(ByVal latitude As String, _
                                ByVal longitude As String)
  ' Processes information from the GPS receiver
  Public Function Parse(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Look at the first word to decide where to go next
    Select Case GetWords(sentence)(0)
      Case "$GPRMC"      ' A "Recommended Minimum" sentence was found!
        Return ParseGPRMC(sentence)
      Case Else
        ' Indicate that the sentence was not recognized
        Return False
    End Select
  End Function
  ' Divides a sentence into individual words
  Public Function GetWords(ByVal sentence As String) As String()
    Return sentence.Split(","c)
  End Function
  ' Interprets a $GPRMC message
  Public Function ParseGPRMC(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Divide the sentence into words
    Dim Words() As String = GetWords(sentence)
    ' Do we have enough values to describe our location?
    If Words(3) <> "" And Words(4) <> "" And Words(5) <> "" And _
                                Words(6) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract latitude and longitude
      Dim Latitude As String = Words(3).Substring(0, 2) & "°" ' Append hours
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(3).Substring(2) & """"      ' Append minutes
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(4)     ' Append the hemisphere
      Dim Longitude As String = Words(5).Substring(0, 3) & "°" ' Append hours
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(5).Substring(3) & """"     ' Append minutes
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(6)     ' Append the hemisphere
      ' Notify the calling application of the change
      RaiseEvent PositionReceived(Latitude, Longitude)
    End If
    ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
    Return True
  End Function
End Class

One thing to watch out for here is that some GPS devices will report blank values when no information is known. Therefore, it’s a good idea to test each word for a value before parsing. If you need to type the degree symbol (°), hold down the Alt key and type “0176” on the numeric keypad.

Taking Out the Garbage

A checksum is calculated as the XOR of bytes between (but not including) the dollar sign and asterisk. This checksum is then compared with the checksum from the sentence. If the checksums do not match, the sentence is typically discarded. This is okay to do because the GPS devices tend to repeat the same information every few seconds. With the ability to compare checksums, the interpreter is able to throw out any sentence with an invalid checksum. Listing 1-3 expands the interpreter to do this.

(Listing 1-3: The interpreter can now detect errors and parse only error-free NMEA data.)
'*******************************************************

'**  Listing 1-3.  Detecting and handling NMEA errors

'*******************************************************

Public Class NmeaInterpreter
  ' Raised when the current location has changed
  Public Event PositionReceived(ByVal latitude As String, _
                                ByVal longitude As String)
  ' Processes information from the GPS receiver
  Public Function Parse(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Discard the sentence if its checksum does not match our calculated
    'checksum
    If Not IsValid(sentence) Then Return False
    ' Look at the first word to decide where to go next
    Select Case GetWords(sentence)(0)
      Case "$GPRMC"      ' A "Recommended Minimum" sentence was found!
        Return ParseGPRMC(sentence)
      Case Else
        ' Indicate that the sentence was not recognized
        Return False
    End Select
  End Function
  ' Divides a sentence into individual words
  Public Function GetWords(ByVal sentence As String) As String()
    Return sentence.Split(","c)
  End Function
  ' Interprets a $GPRMC message
  Public Function ParseGPRMC(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Divide the sentence into words
    Dim Words() As String = GetWords(sentence)
    ' Do we have enough values to describe our location?
    If Words(3) <> "" And Words(4) <> "" And Words(5) <> "" And _
                                Words(6) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract latitude and longitude
      Dim Latitude As String = Words(3).Substring(0, 2) & "°" ' Append hours
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(3).Substring(2) & """"      ' Append minutes
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(4)     ' Append the hemisphere
      Dim Longitude As String = Words(5).Substring(0, 3) & "°" ' Append hours
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(5).Substring(3) & """"     ' Append minutes
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(6)     ' Append the hemisphere
      ' Notify the calling application of the change
      RaiseEvent PositionReceived(Latitude, Longitude)
    End If
    ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
    Return True
  End Function
  ' Returns True if a sentence's checksum matches the calculated checksum
  Public Function IsValid(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Compare the characters after the asterisk to the calculation
    Return sentence.Substring(sentence.IndexOf("*") + 1) = GetChecksum(sentence)
  End Function
  ' Calculates the checksum for a sentence
  Public Function GetChecksum(ByVal sentence As String) As String
    ' Loop through all chars to get a checksum
    Dim Character As Char
    Dim Checksum As Integer
    For Each Character In sentence
      Select Case Character
        Case "$"c
          ' Ignore the dollar sign
        Case "*"c
          ' Stop processing before the asterisk
          Exit For
        Case Else
          ' Is this the first value for the checksum?
          If Checksum = 0 Then
            ' Yes. Set the checksum to the value
            Checksum = Convert.ToByte(Character)
          Else
            ' No. XOR the checksum with this character's value
            Checksum = Checksum Xor Convert.ToByte(Character)
          End If
      End Select
    Next
    ' Return the checksum formatted as a two-character hexadecimal
    Return Checksum.ToString("X2")
  End Function
End Class

Wireless Atomic Time

Time is the cornerstone of GPS technology because distances are measured at the speed of light. Each GPS satellite contains four atomic clocks which it uses to time its radio transmissions within a few nanoseconds. One fascinating feature is that with just a few lines of code, these atomic clocks can be used to synchronize a computer’s clock with millisecond accuracy. The second word of the $GPRMC sentence, “040302.663”, contains satellite-derived time in a compressed format. The first two characters represent hours, the next two represent minutes, the next two represent seconds, and everything after the decimal place is milliseconds. So, the time is 4:03:02.663 AM. However, satellites report time in universal time (GMT+0), so the time must be adjusted to the local time zone. Listing 1-4 adds support for satellite-derived time and uses the DateTime.ToLocalTime method to convert satellite time to the local time zone.

(Listing 1-4: This class can now use atomic clocks to synchronize your computer’s clock wirelessly.)
'********************************************************

'**  Listing 1-4.  Add support for satellite-derived time

'********************************************************

Public Class NmeaInterpreter
  ' Raised when the current location has changed
  Public Event PositionReceived(ByVal latitude As String, _
                                ByVal longitude As String)
  Public Event DateTimeChanged(ByVal dateTime As DateTime)
  ' Processes information from the GPS receiver
  Public Function Parse(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Discard the sentence if its checksum does not match our
    ' calculated checksum
    If Not IsValid(sentence) Then Return False
    ' Look at the first word to decide where to go next
    Select Case GetWords(sentence)(0)
      Case "$GPRMC"      ' A "Recommended Minimum" sentence was found!
        Return ParseGPRMC(sentence)
      Case Else
        ' Indicate that the sentence was not recognized
        Return False
    End Select
  End Function
  ' Divides a sentence into individual words
  Public Function GetWords(ByVal sentence As String) As String()
    Return sentence.Split(","c)
  End Function
  ' Interprets a $GPRMC message
  Public Function ParseGPRMC(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Divide the sentence into words
    Dim Words() As String = GetWords(sentence)
    ' Do we have enough values to describe our location?
    If Words(3) <> "" And Words(4) <> "" And Words(5) <> "" And _
                                Words(6) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract latitude and longitude
      Dim Latitude As String = Words(3).Substring(0, 2) & "°" ' Append hours
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(3).Substring(2) & """"    ' Append minutes
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(4)     ' Append the hemisphere
      Dim Longitude As String = Words(5).Substring(0, 3) & "°" ' Append hours
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(5).Substring(3) & """"    ' Append minutes
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(6)     ' Append the hemisphere
      ' Notify the calling application of the change
      RaiseEvent PositionReceived(Latitude, Longitude)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough values to parse satellite-derived time?
    If Words(1) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract hours, minutes, seconds and milliseconds
      Dim UtcHours As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(0, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcMinutes As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(2, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcSeconds As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(4, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcMilliseconds As Integer
      ' Extract milliseconds if it is available
      If Words(1).Length > 7 Then
          UtcMilliseconds = CType(Single.Parse(Words(1).Substring(6), _
              CultureInfo.InvariantCulture) * 1000, Integer)
      End If
      ' Now build a DateTime object with all values
      Dim Today As DateTime = System.DateTime.Now.ToUniversalTime
      Dim SatelliteTime As New System.DateTime(Today.Year, Today.Month, _
        Today.Day, UtcHours, UtcMinutes, UtcSeconds, UtcMilliseconds)
      ' Notify of the new time, adjusted to the local time zone
      RaiseEvent DateTimeChanged(SatelliteTime.ToLocalTime)
    End If
    ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
    Return True
  End Function
  ' Returns True if a sentence's checksum matches the calculated checksum
  Public Function IsValid(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Compare the characters after the asterisk to the calculation
    Return sentence.Substring(sentence.IndexOf("*") + 1) = _
                                       GetChecksum(sentence)
  End Function
  ' Calculates the checksum for a sentence
  Public Function GetChecksum(ByVal sentence As String) As String
    ' Loop through all chars to get a checksum
    Dim Character As Char
    Dim Checksum As Integer
    For Each Character In sentence
      Select Case Character
        Case "$"c
          ' Ignore the dollar sign
        Case "*"c
          ' Stop processing before the asterisk
          Exit For
        Case Else
          ' Is this the first value for the checksum?
          If Checksum = 0 Then
            ' Yes. Set the checksum to the value
            Checksum = Convert.ToByte(Character)
          Else
            ' No. XOR the checksum with this character's value
            Checksum = Checksum Xor Convert.ToByte(Character)
          End If
      End Select
    Next
    ' Return the checksum formatted as a two-character hexadecimal
    Return Checksum.ToString("X2")
  End Function
End Class

Direction & Speed Alerts

GPS devices analyze your position over time to calculate speed and bearing. The $GPRMC sentence at the beginning of this article also includes these readings. Speed is always reported in knots, and bearing is reported as an “azimuth”, a measurement around the horizon measured clockwise from 0° to 360° where 0° represents north, 90° means east, and so on. A little math is applied to convert knots into miles per hour. The power of GPS is again demonstrated with one line of code in listing 1-5 which figures out if a car is over the speed limit.

(Listing 1-5: This class can now tell you which direction you're going and help prevent a speeding ticket.)
'*******************************************************

'**  Listing 1-5.  Extracting speed and bearing

'*******************************************************

Public Class NmeaInterpreter
  ' Raised when the current location has changed
  Public Event PositionReceived(ByVal latitude As String, _
                                ByVal longitude As String)
  Public Event DateTimeChanged(ByVal dateTime As DateTime)
  Public Event BearingReceived(ByVal bearing As Double)
  Public Event SpeedReceived(ByVal speed As Double)
  Public Event SpeedLimitReached()
  ' Processes information from the GPS receiver
  Public Function Parse(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Discard the sentence if its checksum does not match our calculated
    ' checksum
    If Not IsValid(sentence) Then Return False
    ' Look at the first word to decide where to go next
    Select Case GetWords(sentence)(0)
      Case "$GPRMC"      ' A "Recommended Minimum" sentence was found!
        Return ParseGPRMC(sentence)
      Case Else
        ' Indicate that the sentence was not recognized
        Return False
    End Select
  End Function
  ' Divides a sentence into individual words
  Public Function GetWords(ByVal sentence As String) As String()
    Return sentence.Split(","c)
  End Function
 ' Interprets a $GPRMC message
 Public Function ParseGPRMC(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Divide the sentence into words
    Dim Words() As String = GetWords(sentence)
    ' Do we have enough values to describe our location?
    If Words(3) <> "" And Words(4) <> "" And Words(5) <> "" And _
                                Words(6) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract latitude and longitude
      Dim Latitude As String = Words(3).Substring(0, 2) & "°" ' Append hours
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(3).Substring(2) & """"    ' Append minutes
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(4)     ' Append the hemisphere
      Dim Longitude As String = Words(5).Substring(0, 3) & "°" ' Append hours
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(5).Substring(3) & """"    ' Append minutes
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(6)     ' Append the hemisphere
      ' Notify the calling application of the change
      RaiseEvent PositionReceived(Latitude, Longitude)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough values to parse satellite-derived time?
    If Words(1) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract hours, minutes, seconds and milliseconds
      Dim UtcHours As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(0, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcMinutes As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(2, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcSeconds As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(4, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcMilliseconds As Integer
      ' Extract milliseconds if it is available
      If Words(1).Length > 7 Then UtcMilliseconds = _
           CType(Single.Parse(Words(1).Substring(6), _
                CultureInfo.InvariantCulture) * 1000, Integer)
      ' Now build a DateTime object with all values
      Dim Today As DateTime = System.DateTime.Now.ToUniversalTime
      Dim SatelliteTime As New System.DateTime(Today.Year, Today.Month, _
        Today.Day, UtcHours, UtcMinutes, UtcSeconds, UtcMilliseconds)
      ' Notify of the new time, adjusted to the local time zone
      RaiseEvent DateTimeChanged(SatelliteTime.ToLocalTime)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough information to extract the current speed?
    If Words(7) <> "" Then
      ' Yes.  Convert it into MPH
      Dim Speed As Double = CType(Words(7), Double) * 1.150779
      ' If we're over 55MPH then trigger a speed alarm!
      If Speed > 55 Then RaiseEvent SpeedLimitReached()
      ' Notify of the new speed
      RaiseEvent SpeedReceived(Speed)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough information to extract bearing?
    If Words(8) <> "" Then
      ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
      Dim Bearing As Double = CType(Words(8), Double)
      RaiseEvent BearingReceived(Bearing)
    End If
    ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
    Return True
  End Function
  ' Returns True if a sentence's checksum matches the calculated checksum
  Public Function IsValid(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Compare the characters after the asterisk to the calculation
    Return sentence.Substring(sentence.IndexOf("*") + 1) = _
                                        GetChecksum(sentence)
  End Function
  ' Calculates the checksum for a sentence
  Public Function GetChecksum(ByVal sentence As String) As String
    ' Loop through all chars to get a checksum
    Dim Character As Char
    Dim Checksum As Integer
    For Each Character In sentence
      Select Case Character
        Case "$"c
          ' Ignore the dollar sign
        Case "*"c
          ' Stop processing before the asterisk
          Exit For
        Case Else
          ' Is this the first value for the checksum?
          If Checksum = 0 Then
            ' Yes. Set the checksum to the value
            Checksum = Convert.ToByte(Character)
          Else
            ' No. XOR the checksum with this character's value
            Checksum = Checksum Xor Convert.ToByte(Character)
          End If
      End Select
    Next
    ' Return the checksum formatted as a two-character hexadecimal
    Return Checksum.ToString("X2")
  End Function
End Class

Are We Fixed Yet?

The $GPRMC sentence includes a value which indicates whether or not a “fix” has been obtained. A fix is possible when the signal strength of at least three satellites is strong enough to be involved in calculating your location. If at least four satellites are involved, altitude also becomes known. The third word of the $GPRMC sentence is one of two letters: “A” for “active”, where a fix is obtained, or “V” for “invalid” where no fix is present. Listing 1-6 includes code to examine this character and report on fix status.

(Listing 1-6: The interpreter now knows when the device has obtained a fix.)
'*******************************************************

'**  Listing 1-6.  Extracting satellite fix status

'*******************************************************

Public Class NmeaInterpreter

  ' Raised when the current location has changed
  Public Event PositionReceived(ByVal latitude As String, _
                                ByVal longitude As String)
  Public Event DateTimeChanged(ByVal dateTime As DateTime)
  Public Event BearingReceived(ByVal bearing As Double)
  Public Event SpeedReceived(ByVal speed As Double)
  Public Event SpeedLimitReached()
  Public Event FixObtained()
  Public Event FixLost()
  ' Processes information from the GPS receiver
  Public Function Parse(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Discard the sentence if its checksum does not match our calculated
    ' checksum
    If Not IsValid(sentence) Then Return False
    ' Look at the first word to decide where to go next
    Select Case GetWords(sentence)(0)
      Case "$GPRMC"      ' A "Recommended Minimum" sentence was found!
        Return ParseGPRMC(sentence)
      Case Else
        ' Indicate that the sentence was not recognized
        Return False
    End Select
  End Function
  ' Divides a sentence into individual words
  Public Function GetWords(ByVal sentence As String) As String()
    Return sentence.Split(","c)
  End Function
 ' Interprets a $GPRMC message
 Public Function ParseGPRMC(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Divide the sentence into words
    Dim Words() As String = GetWords(sentence)
    ' Do we have enough values to describe our location?
    If Words(3) <> "" And Words(4) <> "" And Words(5) <> "" And _
                                Words(6) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract latitude and longitude
      Dim Latitude As String = Words(3).Substring(0, 2) & "°"  ' Append hours
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(3).Substring(2) & """"    ' Append minutes
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(4)     ' Append the hemisphere
      Dim Longitude As String = Words(5).Substring(0, 3) & "°"  ' Append hours
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(5).Substring(3) & """"    ' Append minutes
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(6)     ' Append the hemisphere
      ' Notify the calling application of the change
      RaiseEvent PositionReceived(Latitude, Longitude)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough values to parse satellite-derived time?
    If Words(1) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract hours, minutes, seconds and milliseconds
      Dim UtcHours As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(0, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcMinutes As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(2, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcSeconds As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(4, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcMilliseconds As Integer
      ' Extract milliseconds if it is available
      If Words(1).Length > 7 Then UtcMilliseconds = _
                CType(Single.Parse(Words(1).Substring(6), _
                     CultureInfo.InvariantCulture) * 1000, Integer)
      ' Now build a DateTime object with all values
      Dim Today As DateTime = System.DateTime.Now.ToUniversalTime
      Dim SatelliteTime As New System.DateTime(Today.Year, Today.Month, _
        Today.Day, UtcHours, UtcMinutes, UtcSeconds, UtcMilliseconds)
      ' Notify of the new time, adjusted to the local time zone
      RaiseEvent DateTimeChanged(SatelliteTime.ToLocalTime)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough information to extract the current speed?
    If Words(7) <> "" Then
      ' Yes.  Convert it into MPH
      Dim Speed As Double = CType(Words(7), Double) * 1.150779
      ' If we're over 55MPH then trigger a speed alarm!
      If Speed > 55 Then RaiseEvent SpeedLimitReached()
      ' Notify of the new speed
      RaiseEvent SpeedReceived(Speed)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough information to extract bearing?
    If Words(8) <> "" Then
      ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
      Dim Bearing As Double = CType(Words(8), Double)
      RaiseEvent BearingReceived(Bearing)
    End If
    ' Does the device currently have a satellite fix?
    If Words(2) <> "" Then
      Select Case Words(2)
        Case "A"
          RaiseEvent FixObtained()
        Case "V"
          RaiseEvent FixLost()
      End Select
    End If
    ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
    Return True
  End Function
  ' Returns True if a sentence's checksum matches the calculated checksum
  Public Function IsValid(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Compare the characters after the asterisk to the calculation
    Return sentence.Substring(sentence.IndexOf("*") + 1) = GetChecksum(sentence)
  End Function
  ' Calculates the checksum for a sentence
  Public Function GetChecksum(ByVal sentence As String) As String
    ' Loop through all chars to get a checksum
    Dim Character As Char
    Dim Checksum As Integer
    For Each Character In sentence
      Select Case Character
        Case "$"c
          ' Ignore the dollar sign
        Case "*"c
          ' Stop processing before the asterisk
          Exit For
        Case Else
          ' Is this the first value for the checksum?
          If Checksum = 0 Then
            ' Yes. Set the checksum to the value
            Checksum = Convert.ToByte(Character)
          Else
            ' No. XOR the checksum with this character's value
            Checksum = Checksum Xor Convert.ToByte(Character)
          End If
      End Select
    Next
    ' Return the checksum formatted as a two-character hexadecimal
    Return Checksum.ToString("X2")
  End Function
End Class

As you can see, a whole lot of information is packed into a single NMEA sentence. Now that the $GPRMC sentence has been fully interpreted, the interpreter can be expanded to support a second sentence: $GPGSV. This sentence describes the configuration of satellites overhead, in real-time.

Real-Time Satellite Tracking

Knowing the location of satellites is important when determining how precise readings are and how stable a GPS fix is. Since GPS precision will be covered in detail in Part 2 of this series, this section will focus on interpreting satellite location and signal strength. There are twenty-four operational satellites in orbit. Satellites are spaced in orbit so that at any time a minimum of six satellites will be in view to users anywhere in the world. Satellites are constantly in motion, which is good because it prevents the existence of “blind spots” in the world with little or no satellite visibility. Just like finding stars in the sky, satellite locations are described as the combination of an azimuth and an elevation. As mentioned above, azimuth measures a direction around the horizon. Elevation measures a degree value up from the horizon between 0° and 90°, where 0° represents the horizon and 90° represents “zenith”, directly overhead. So, if the device says a satellite’s azimuth is 45° and its elevation is 45°, the satellite is located halfway up from the horizon towards the northeast. In addition to location, devices report each satellite’s “Pseudo-Random Code” (or PRC) which is a number used to uniquely identify one satellite from another. Here’s an example of a $GPGSV sentence:

$GPGSV,3,1,10,24,82,023,40,05,62,285,32,01,62,123,00,17,59,229,28*70

Each sentence contains up to four blocks of satellite information, comprised of four words. For example, the first block is “24,82,023,40” and the second block is “05,62,285,32” and so on. The first word of each block gives the satellite’s PRC. The second word gives each satellite’s elevation, followed by azimuth and signal strength. If this satellite information were to be shown graphically, it would look like figure 1-1.

(Figure 1-1: Graphical representation of a $GPGSV sentence, where the center of the circle marks the current position and the edge of the circle marks the horizon.)

Perhaps, the most important number in this sentence is the “signal-to-noise ratio” (or SNR for short). This number indicates how strongly a satellite’s radio signal is being received. Remember, satellites transmit signals at the same strength, but things like trees and walls can obscure a signal beyond recognition. Typical SNR values are between zero and fifty, where fifty means an excellent signal. (SNR can be as high as ninety-nine, but I've never seen readings above fifty even in wide open sky.) In Figure 1-1, the green satellites indicate a strong signal, whereas the yellow satellite signifies a moderate signal (in Part 2, I will provide a way to classify signal strengths). Satellite #1’s signal is completely obscured. Listing 1-7 shows the interpreter after it is expanded to read satellite info.

(Listing 1-7: The interpreter is improved to interpret the location of GPS satellites currently in view.)
'*******************************************************

'**  Listing 1-7.  Extracting satellite information

'*******************************************************

Public Class NmeaInterpreter

  ' Raised when the current location has changed

  Public Event PositionReceived(ByVal latitude As String, _
                                ByVal longitude As String)
  Public Event DateTimeChanged(ByVal dateTime As DateTime)
  Public Event BearingReceived(ByVal bearing As Double)
  Public Event SpeedReceived(ByVal speed As Double)
  Public Event SpeedLimitReached()
  Public Event FixObtained()
  Public Event FixLost()
  Public Event SatelliteReceived(ByVal pseudoRandomCode As Integer, _
    ByVal azimuth As Integer, _
    ByVal elevation As Integer, _
    ByVal signalToNoiseRatio As Integer)
  ' Processes information from the GPS receiver
  Public Function Parse(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Discard the sentence if its checksum does not match our calculated
    ' checksum
    If Not IsValid(sentence) Then Return False
    ' Look at the first word to decide where to go next
    Select Case GetWords(sentence)(0)
      Case "$GPRMC"      ' A "Recommended Minimum" sentence was found!
        Return ParseGPRMC(sentence)
      Case "$GPGSV"      ' A "Satellites in View" message was found
        Return ParseGPGSV(sentence)
      Case Else
        ' Indicate that the sentence was not recognized
        Return False
    End Select
  End Function
  ' Divides a sentence into individual words
  Public Function GetWords(ByVal sentence As String) As String()
    Return sentence.Split(","c)
  End Function
 ' Interprets a $GPRMC message
 Public Function ParseGPRMC(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Divide the sentence into words
    Dim Words() As String = GetWords(sentence)
    ' Do we have enough values to describe our location?
    If Words(3) <> "" And Words(4) <> "" And Words(5) <> "" And _
                                Words(6) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract latitude and longitude
      Dim Latitude As String = Words(3).Substring(0, 2) & "°"  ' Append hours
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(3).Substring(2) & """"    ' Append minutes
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(4)     ' Append the hemisphere
      Dim Longitude As String = Words(5).Substring(0, 3) & "°" ' Append hours
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(5).Substring(3) & """"    ' Append minutes
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(6)     ' Append the hemisphere
      ' Notify the calling application of the change
      RaiseEvent PositionReceived(Latitude, Longitude)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough values to parse satellite-derived time?
    If Words(1) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract hours, minutes, seconds and milliseconds
      Dim UtcHours As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(0, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcMinutes As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(2, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcSeconds As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(4, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcMilliseconds As Integer
      ' Extract milliseconds if it is available
      If Words(1).Length > 7 Then UtcMilliseconds = _
                CType(Single.Parse(Words(1).Substring(6), _
                     CultureInfo.InvariantCulture) * 1000, Integer)
      ' Now build a DateTime object with all values
      Dim Today As DateTime = System.DateTime.Now.ToUniversalTime
      Dim SatelliteTime As New System.DateTime(Today.Year, Today.Month, _
        Today.Day, UtcHours, UtcMinutes, UtcSeconds, UtcMilliseconds)
      ' Notify of the new time, adjusted to the local time zone
      RaiseEvent DateTimeChanged(SatelliteTime.ToLocalTime)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough information to extract the current speed?
    If Words(7) <> "" Then
      ' Yes.  Convert it into MPH
      Dim Speed As Double = CType(Words(7), Double) * 1.150779
      ' If we're over 55MPH then trigger a speed alarm!
      If Speed > 55 Then RaiseEvent SpeedLimitReached()
      ' Notify of the new speed
      RaiseEvent SpeedReceived(Speed)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough information to extract bearing?
    If Words(8) <> "" Then
      ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
      Dim Bearing As Double = CType(Words(8), Double)
      RaiseEvent BearingReceived(Bearing)
    End If
    ' Does the device currently have a satellite fix?
    If Words(2) <> "" Then
      Select Case Words(2)
        Case "A"
          RaiseEvent FixObtained()
        Case "V"
          RaiseEvent FixLost()
      End Select
    End If
    ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
    Return True
  End Function
  ' Interprets a "Satellites in View" NMEA sentence
  Public Function ParseGPGSV(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    Dim PseudoRandomCode As Integer
    Dim Azimuth As Integer
    Dim Elevation As Integer
    Dim SignalToNoiseRatio As Integer
    ' Divide the sentence into words
    Dim Words() As String = GetWords(sentence)
    ' Each sentence contains four blocks of satellite information.
    ' Read each block and report each satellite's information
    Dim Count As Integer
    For Count = 1 To 4
      ' Does the sentence have enough words to analyze?
      If (Words.Length - 1) >= (Count * 4 + 3) Then
        ' Yes.  Proceed with analyzing the block.  Does it contain any
        ' information?
        If Words(Count * 4) <> "" And Words(Count * 4 + 1) <> "" _
        And Words(Count * 4 + 2) <> "" And Words(Count * 4 + 3) <> "" Then
          ' Yes. Extract satellite information and report it
          PseudoRandomCode = CType(Words(Count * 4), Integer)
          Elevation = CType(Words(Count * 4 + 1), Integer)
          Azimuth = CType(Words(Count * 4 + 2), Integer)
          SignalToNoiseRatio = CType(Words(Count * 4 + 2), Integer)
          ' Notify of this satellite's information
          RaiseEvent SatelliteReceived(PseudoRandomCode, Azimuth, Elevation, _
            SignalToNoiseRatio)
        End If
      End If
    Next
    ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
    Return True
  End Function
  ' Returns True if a sentence's checksum matches the calculated checksum
  Public Function IsValid(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Compare the characters after the asterisk to the calculation
    Return sentence.Substring(sentence.IndexOf("*") + 1) = GetChecksum(sentence)
  End Function
  ' Calculates the checksum for a sentence
  Public Function GetChecksum(ByVal sentence As String) As String
    ' Loop through all chars to get a checksum
    Dim Character As Char
    Dim Checksum As Integer
    For Each Character In sentence
      Select Case Character
        Case "$"c
          ' Ignore the dollar sign
        Case "*"c
          ' Stop processing before the asterisk
          Exit For
        Case Else
          ' Is this the first value for the checksum?
          If Checksum = 0 Then
            ' Yes. Set the checksum to the value
            Checksum = Convert.ToByte(Character)
          Else
            ' No. XOR the checksum with this character's value
            Checksum = Checksum Xor Convert.ToByte(Character)
          End If
      End Select
    Next
    ' Return the checksum formatted as a two-character hexadecimal
    Return Checksum.ToString("X2")
  End Function
End Class

A World-Class Interpreter

International readers may have spotted a subtle problem early on that was not handled in the listings – numbers were being reported in the numeric format used in the United States! Countries like Belgium and Switzerland which use different formats for numbers, require adjustments to the interpreter in order to work at all. Fortunately, the .NET Framework includes built-in support for converting numbers between different cultures, so the changes to the interpreter required are straightforward. In the interpreter, the only fractional value is speed, so only one change is necessary. The NmeaCultureInfo variable represents the culture used for numbers within NMEA sentences. The Double.Parse method is then used with this variable to convert speed into the machine’s local culture. Listing 1-8 shows the completed interpreter, now ready for use internationally.

(Listing 1-8: The completed interpreter, suitable for use anywhere in the world.)
'*************************************************************

'**  Listing 1-8.  Adding support for international cultures

'*************************************************************

Imports System.Globalization
Public Class NmeaInterpreter

  ' Represents the EN-US culture, used for numbers in NMEA sentences
  Private NmeaCultureInfo As New CultureInfo("en-US")
  ' Used to convert knots into miles per hour
  Private MPHPerKnot As Double = Double.Parse("1.150779", NmeaCultureInfo)
  ' Raised when the current location has changed
  Public Event PositionReceived(ByVal latitude As String,_
                                ByVal longitude As String)
  Public Event DateTimeChanged(ByVal dateTime As DateTime)
  Public Event BearingReceived(ByVal bearing As Double)
  Public Event SpeedReceived(ByVal speed As Double)
  Public Event SpeedLimitReached()
  Public Event FixObtained()
  Public Event FixLost()
  Public Event SatelliteReceived(ByVal pseudoRandomCode As Integer, _
    ByVal azimuth As Integer, _
    ByVal elevation As Integer, _
    ByVal signalToNoiseRatio As Integer)
  ' Processes information from the GPS receiver
  Public Function Parse(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Discard the sentence if its checksum does not match our calculated
    ' checksum
    If Not IsValid(sentence) Then Return False
    ' Look at the first word to decide where to go next
    Select Case GetWords(sentence)(0)
      Case "$GPRMC"      ' A "Recommended Minimum" sentence was found!
        Return ParseGPRMC(sentence)
      Case "$GPGSV"
        Return ParseGPGSV(sentence)
      Case Else
        ' Indicate that the sentence was not recognized
        Return False
    End Select
  End Function
  ' Divides a sentence into individual words
  Public Function GetWords(ByVal sentence As String) As String()
    Return sentence.Split(","c)
  End Function
  ' Interprets a $GPRMC message
  Public Function ParseGPRMC(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Divide the sentence into words
    Dim Words() As String = GetWords(sentence)
    ' Do we have enough values to describe our location?
    If Words(3) <> "" And Words(4) <> "" _
    And Words(5) <> "" And Words(6) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract latitude and longitude
      Dim Latitude As String = Words(3).Substring(0, 2) & "°"  ' Append hours
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(3).Substring(2) & """"    ' Append minutes
      Latitude = Latitude & Words(4)     ' Append the hemisphere
      Dim Longitude As String = Words(5).Substring(0, 3) & "°" ' Append hours
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(5).Substring(3) & """"    ' Append minutes
      Longitude = Longitude & Words(6)     ' Append the hemisphere
      ' Notify the calling application of the change
      RaiseEvent PositionReceived(Latitude, Longitude)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough values to parse satellite-derived time?
    If Words(1) <> "" Then
      ' Yes. Extract hours, minutes, seconds and milliseconds
      Dim UtcHours As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(0, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcMinutes As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(2, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcSeconds As Integer = CType(Words(1).Substring(4, 2), Integer)
      Dim UtcMilliseconds As Integer
      ' Extract milliseconds if it is available
      If Words(1).Length > 7 Then
        UtcMilliseconds = CType(Single.Parse(Words(1).Substring(6), _
                      CultureInfo.InvariantCulture) * 1000, Integer)
      End If
      ' Now build a DateTime object with all values
      Dim Today As DateTime = System.DateTime.Now.ToUniversalTime
      Dim SatelliteTime As New System.DateTime(Today.Year, Today.Month, _
        Today.Day, UtcHours, UtcMinutes, UtcSeconds, UtcMilliseconds)
      ' Notify of the new time, adjusted to the local time zone
      RaiseEvent DateTimeChanged(SatelliteTime.ToLocalTime)
    End If
    ' Do we have enough information to extract the current speed?
    If Words(7) <> "" Then
      ' Yes.  Parse the speed and convert it to MPH
      Dim Speed As Double = Double.Parse(Words(7), NmeaCultureInfo) _
                          * MPHPerKnot
      ' Notify of the new speed
      RaiseEvent SpeedReceived(Speed)
      ' Are we over the highway speed limit?
      If Speed > 55 Then RaiseEvent SpeedLimitReached()
    End If
    ' Do we have enough information to extract bearing?
    If Words(8) <> "" Then
      ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
      Dim Bearing As Double = CType(Words(8), Double)
      RaiseEvent BearingReceived(Bearing)
    End If
    ' Does the device currently have a satellite fix?
    If Words(2) <> "" Then
      Select Case Words(2)
        Case "A"
          RaiseEvent FixObtained()
        Case "V"
          RaiseEvent FixLost()
      End Select
    End If
    ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
    Return True
  End Function
  ' Interprets a "Satellites in View" NMEA sentence
  Public Function ParseGPGSV(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    Dim PseudoRandomCode As Integer
    Dim Azimuth As Integer
    Dim Elevation As Integer
    Dim SignalToNoiseRatio As Integer
    ' Divide the sentence into words
    Dim Words() As String = GetWords(sentence)
    ' Each sentence contains four blocks of satellite information.
    ' Read each block
    ' and report each satellite's information
    Dim Count As Integer
    For Count = 1 To 4
      ' Does the sentence have enough words to analyze?
      If (Words.Length - 1) >= (Count * 4 + 3) Then
        ' Yes. Proceed with analyzing the block. Does it contain any information?
        If Words(Count * 4) <> "" And Words(Count * 4 + 1) <> "" _
        And Words(Count * 4 + 2) <> "" And Words(Count * 4 + 3) <> "" Then
          ' Yes. Extract satellite information and report it
          PseudoRandomCode = CType(Words(Count * 4), Integer)
          Elevation = CType(Words(Count * 4 + 1), Integer)
          Azimuth = CType(Words(Count * 4 + 2), Integer)
          SignalToNoiseRatio = CType(Words(Count * 4 + 2), Integer)
          ' Notify of this satellite's information
          RaiseEvent SatelliteReceived(PseudoRandomCode, Azimuth, Elevation, _
            SignalToNoiseRatio)
        End If
      End If
    Next
    ' Indicate that the sentence was recognized
    Return True
  End Function
  ' Returns True if a sentence's checksum matches the calculated checksum
  Public Function IsValid(ByVal sentence As String) As Boolean
    ' Compare the characters after the asterisk to the calculation
    Return sentence.Substring(sentence.IndexOf("*") + 1) = GetChecksum(sentence)
  End Function
  ' Calculates the checksum for a sentence
  Public Function GetChecksum(ByVal sentence As String) As String
    ' Loop through all chars to get a checksum
    Dim Character As Char
    Dim Checksum As Integer
    For Each Character In sentence
      Select Case Character
        Case "$"c
          ' Ignore the dollar sign
        Case "*"c
          ' Stop processing before the asterisk
          Exit For
        Case Else
          ' Is this the first value for the checksum?
          If Checksum = 0 Then
            ' Yes. Set the checksum to the value
            Checksum = Convert.ToByte(Character)
          Else
            ' No. XOR the checksum with this character's value
            Checksum = Checksum Xor Convert.ToByte(Character)
          End If
      End Select
    Next
    ' Return the checksum formatted as a two-character hexadecimal
    Return Checksum.ToString("X2")
  End Function
End Class

Final Thoughts

You should now have a good understanding that an NMEA interpreter is all about extracting words from sentences. You can harness the power of satellites to determine your location, synchronize your computer clock, find your direction, watch your speed, and point to a satellite in the sky on a cloudy day. This interpreter will also work with the .NET Compact Framework without any modifications. If sentences were also stored in a file, the interpreter can be used to play back an entire road trip. These are all great features, especially considering the small size of the class, but is this interpreter ready to drive your car and pilot an airplane? Not quite yet. There is one important topic remaining which is required to make GPS applications safe for the real world: precision. GPS devices are designed to report any information they find, even if the information is inaccurate. In fact, information about the current location can be off as much as half a football field, even when devices are equipped with the latest DGPS and WAAS correction technologies! Unfortunately, several developers are not aware of this problem. There are some third-party components out there which are not suitable for commercial applications that require enforcing a minimum level of precision. Keep this article handy, however, because in Part 2 of this series, I will explain precision enforcement in detail and take the interpreter even further to make it suitable for professional, high-precision applications!

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Jon Person
Software Developer (Senior) Black Knight Financial Services
United States United States
Hi there! From 2004 to 2009 I ran a company called "GeoFrameworks," publishing two components called GPS.NET and GIS.NET which helped developers quickly write location-based services. Now, I've released the source code for GPS.NET to CodePlex for you to use as you see fit.
 
GPS.NET 2.0 on CodePlex
GPS.NET 3.0 on CodePlex
 
... I've also released the source code of a library called the "GeoFramework," a collection of commonly used classes such as Latitude, Longitude, Distance, Speed, and Position:
 
GeoFramework 1.0 on CodePlex
GeoFramework 2.0 on CodePlex
 
I'm now taking a break from programming, but I really appreciate the positive feedback from readers!

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GeneralGreat Insight PinmemberCraig Gilchrist22-Aug-09 11:33 

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