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Use Your Computer As A Chart Plotter

Updated on March 30, 2013

GPS Systems

Seen above is an example of an GPS system for your motor vehicle.
Seen above is an example of an GPS system for your motor vehicle.
These handhelds are very acurate and can go just about anywhere with you.
These handhelds are very acurate and can go just about anywhere with you.

Get To Know GPS

Planning and outdoor adventure, going camping or even on a hike? Making a long road trip? Maybe your taking your boat on an outing? If so, travel strategically with a GPS chart plotter right on your laptop, or plan a trip on your PC at home.

GPS, which stands for Global Positioning System, is a radio navigation system that allows land, sea, and airborne users to determine their exact location, velocity, and time 24 hours a day, in all weather conditions, anywhere in the world. The capabilities of today’s system render other well-known navigation and positioning “technologies”—namely the magnetic compass, the sextant, the chronometer, and radio-based devices—impractical and obsolete. GPS is used to support a broad range of military, commercial, and consumer applications.

24 GPS satellites (21 active, 3 spare) are in orbit at 10,600 miles above the earth. The satellites are spaced so that from any point on earth, four satellites will be above the horizon. Each satellite contains a computer, an atomic clock, and a radio. With an understanding of its own orbit and the clock, the satellite continually broadcasts its changing position and time. (Once a day, each satellite checks its own sense of time and position with a ground station and makes any minor correction.) On the ground, any GPS receiver contains a computer that "triangulates" its own position by getting bearings from three of the four satellites. The result is provided in the form of a geographic position - longitude and latitude - to, for most receivers, within a few meters.

If the receiver is also equipped with a display screen that shows a map, the position can be shown on the map. If a fourth satellite can be received, the receiver/computer can figure out the altitude as well as the geographic position. If you are moving, your receiver may also be able to calculate your speed and direction of travel and give you estimated times of arrival to specified destinations. Some specialized GPS receivers can also store data for use in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and map making.

There are a wide range of GPS units available on the market today. From automotive and marine GPS to hand held units. These different devices can range from all sorts of prices and have a variety of functions.

Automotive GPS systems are widely popular for use in your motor vehicle. This can make traveling the highways much easier and more convenient.

Marine GPS systems make boating a breeze with a waterproof casing and easy to read display.

Handheld GPS units are probably the most popular and can be on the more expressive side given their convenience of mobility.


The Office of Coast Survey is the nation's nautical chart maker, providing traditional paper charts as well as the charts used by commercial electronic navigational systems. The suite of nearly a thousand nautical charts covers 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline.

Coast Survey’s multipurpose hydrographic surveys makes efficient use of limited resources. For example, surveys may collect information for fish habitat research or tsunami modeling, while acquiring data for chart making. Survey teams also help speed the re-opening of ports and channels after hurricanes and other emergencies by searching for submerged debris or other dangers to navigation.

Once hydrographers acquire the data, it must be checked for accuracy. Coast Survey strives to reduce processing time while maintaining strict quality controls, in order to provide the nation’s mariners with accurate information, quickly.

Coast Survey cartographers use the data to maintain the accuracy of paper charts, which are available from chart agents in traditional form or in an updated “print on demand” format. They also produce and update the electronic navigational charts and raster charts used by all U.S. commercial chart software products.

Innovations and technical achievements have been the hallmark of Coast Survey since its beginning as the government’s first scientific agency, established in 1807. Today, Coast Survey continues to lead, adapting or developing technology to improve data acquisition and speed the delivery of maritime products to the nation.

Mobile GPS With Your Laptop

With a laptop, you can use your GPS in your vehicle and not have to worry about battery power, considering you have a car charger and have it plugged in. Plan a trip by plotting the most convenient route to travel and save money on gas. The GPS Chart Plotter will also help keep you on track and, in the event that you do take a wrong turn, the GPS will safely guide you back onto your planned route.

Take your laptop with you when you go for a hike or go camping. This is the safest way to go. Thousands of people get lost in the wilderness every year on simple day hikes or while camping. Plot out your planed route of travel, print a copy from your printer before leaving and give in to someone close to you. This way, in the event of an emergency situation, you can easily be found and rescued.

Take it with you when you go fishing or boating. A lot of shorelines look quite similar and you can use your GPS to either find that great spot your buddy told you about, or pick out a great spot right on the screen of your laptop.

GPS Antenna

Plug your antenna straight into a USB port on your computer.
Plug your antenna straight into a USB port on your computer.

Make Your Puchase

Your first step will be to find a GPS antenna that fits your budget and buy it. I ordered mine online off of eBay at a great price. However, I do suggest that you do some shopping around. There are a lot of places you can find a GPS antenna to purchase. Google, Amazon and Best Buy are other good places to look. Some of these antennas differ from one another but they all will work for this setup. I recommend you go with a USB port connection, as almost all computers have a USB port. Some antennas work off of different frequencies and will pin-point your location a little faster than others, but buy one that is right for your budget.

I also recommend purchasing one that comes with a installation disc that contains US NOAA Charts already on it. If you do find one that you like that doesn't have these charts, that’s ok because you can download this material for free from the official US NOAA site online.

After receiving your antenna, first run the installation disc before plugging it in. It should come with instructions that will guide you through the setup process. Plug in the antenna and your ready to go. At this point you can download the needed charts online if your disc does not contain them already.

Get out there!

I hope this lens has helped you and possibly saved you a bit of money on that chart plotter you were about to buy. This is really the most practical way to go. Thanks and good luck out there.


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