Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Milk Jug Experiment

 My last post ended with this graph:

Before I tell you what I did to generate it, let's first look at the "why". Here's a short section from a recent windsurfing session that illustrates the problem:
I compared three different GPS units in this test. At the highlighted section, the three GPS units disagree from each other by roughly 0.5 knots for a few points in a row. Areas like this are easy to find in many GPS traces - but what causes them? The GPS units can be much more accurate that this, as stationary tests show, where typical errors are about 10-fold lower. 

One potential cause of the larger errors are short-term changes in the satellite signals received by the GPS; specifically, changes in the signal and/or noise for one or more satellites, and in which satellites the GPS uses to compute speed and position. So the experiment was to induce controlled changes, without moving the GPS, and see what effect they had on the observed error (the speed, since the GPS was stationary) and the error estimates given by the GPS.

To disturb the signal, I took a one gallon milk jug and filled it with water. I then moved it around the GPS and on top of the GPS, keeping a distance of at least a few centimeters, for about 30 seconds. I did that twice, with 30 second control periods where I kept the jug away before, in between, and after. The periods where I moved the jug around the GPS are highlighted in the first graph.

The speeds that were reported by the GPS because of the distorted satellite signal were around 0.5 knots multiple times, and near 0.8-0.9 knots a few times.  I was a little surprised to see such "speeds" just because the signal was partially blocked - after all, the GPS should still have been able to get a perfectly clean signal from most of the 20-25 satellites it was tracking. But apparently, having just a few signals removed or distorted is sufficient to cause errors in the range that we can often see in windsurf tracks.

Now I don't usually windsurf closely to people waving milk jugs, but it's just an example of a sudden change in the satellite signal cause by external factors. During windsurfing, that could be something as simple as changing the position of the arm that the GPS is on, or the body position, so that a different part of the sky is blocked by the arm or the body. The more things move around, the more likely that is to happen - and if you don't have the luxury of windsurfing at a flat spot like Lake George or La Franqui, chop might just do the moving for you.

In a similar experiment, I looked at what happened when moving the GPS up and down rapidly, and the results looked similar, even when looking at directional speeds (velN and velE). But my lovely wife pointed out that I could not really be sure that I was moving the GPS straight up and down, without side-to-side movement, so this experiment would need to be repeated in a more controlled fashion. For now, I'll just say that it is possible that rapid up-down movements of the GPS, which are typical when sailing in small to medium chop, might also have an effect on GPS accuracy.

One interesting question arises when comparing the results from different GPS units that are very close together, and technically identical (or very similar). They both should "see" the same distorted signal, so why would the not compute exactly the same result?

Rather than answering this question directly, or speculating about why this may not be the case, I'll show a graph from a stationary experiment where I had two identical units positioned very close to each other, with a clear view of the sky:
One interesting result shown in the table above is in the "sats" column, which shows how many satellites each unit tracked. Since the units were very close to each other and technically identical, it is reasonable to expect that they would use exactly the same satellites. But at the start of the highlighted region, one GPS used 17 satellites, while the other used 20 - that's a pretty substantial difference! Here is a graph of the satellites tracked by the two Motion units over a time of about 1000 seconds (starting a few minutes into the test, after both units showed the same number of satellites):
For large parts of the tests, the two GPS units differed in how many satellites they used - which means that blockage or distortions of one or a few satellites could affect the two units differently, thus possibly leading to comparatively large discrepancies in the results.

How does all this relate to speedsurfing, you might ask? The blocking experiment is an example of non-random noise in the data. If you look back at the first graph, you may notice that the error estimates increase much less than the speeds. This means that there are multiple regions where the error estimates are significantly lower than the observed errors for more than 10 points in a row - here is an example:

Statistically, we would expect to see some points where the speed is higher than the error estimates, but we should practically never see this many points where the error is larger than the error estimate in a row - if the error is random. But if the error is not random, then we can not use Gaussian error propagation, which makes collecting at high data rates entirely pointless.


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