Introduction to the Global Positioning System for GIS and TRAVERSE

Chapter Six: The GPS Error Budget

The GPS system has been designed to be as nearly accurate as possible. However, there are still errors. Added together, these errors can cause a deviation of +/- 50 -100 meters from the actual GPS receiver position. There are several sources for these errors, the most significant of which are discussed below:

Atmospheric Conditions

The ionosphere and troposphere both refract the GPS signals. This causes the speed of the GPS signal in the ionosphere and troposphere to be different from the speed of the GPS signal in space. Therefore, the distance calculated from "Signal Speed x Time" will be different for the portion of the GPS signal path that passes through the ionosphere and troposphere and for the portion that passes through space.

Ephemeris Errors/Clock Drift/Measurement Noise

As mentioned earlier, GPS signals contain information about ephemeris (orbital position) errors, and about the rate of clock drift for the broadcasting satellite. The data concerning ephemeris errors may not exactly model the true satellite motion or the exact rate of clock drift. Distortion of the signal by measurement noise can further increase positional error. The disparity in ephemeris data can introduce 1-5 meters of positional error, clock drift disparity can introduce 0-1.5 meters of positional error and measurement noise can introduce 0-10 meters of positional error.

Selective Availability

Ephemeris errors should not be confused with Selective Availability (SA), which is the intentional alteration of the time and epherimis signal by the Department of Defense. SA can introduce 0-70 meters of positional error. Fortunately, positional errors caused by SA can be removed by differential correction.


A GPS signal bouncing off a reflectilve surface prior to reaching the GPS receiver antenna is referred to as multipath. Because it is difficult to completely correct multipath error, even in high precision GPS units, multipath error is a serious concern to the GPS user.

The chart below lists the most common sources of error in GPS positions. This chart is commonly known as the GPS Error Budget:

GPS Error Budget

Source			Uncorrected Error Level
Ionosphere		0-30 meters
Troposphere		0-30 meters
Measurement Noise	0-10 meters
Ephemeris Data		1-5 meters
Clock Drift		0-1.5 meters
Multipath		0-1 meter
Selective Availability	0-70 meters

Go back to the previous chapter: Four Satellites to Compute a 3-D Position

Go on to the next chapter: Measuring GPS Accuracy

Return to the Table of Contents

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