How gpsd can interfere with your GNSS receiver and how to fix it

Pi and u-blox

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B and u-blox C94-M8P

In order to work with the u-blox C94-M8P on the Raspberry Pi, I installed a GPS interface called gpsd on the Pi. Documentation on gpsd can be found here. And this is the tutorial I used to install it on the Pi. However, there is one issue with gpsd that neither tutorial mentioned.

It turns out, when gpsd attempts to reconfigure certain Bluetooth- or USB-connected GPS receivers, it can interfere in strange ways with their functioning. I found that certain gpsd commands interfered with the C94-M8P’s ability to reach RTK mode. The receiver would initially reach RTK mode, then quickly lose it and achieve only a 2D/3D fix while gpsd was running.

After much digging, I found a solution. You can configure gpsd to run with the -b option, which is a read-only mode that prevents it from writing to the GPS receiver. This can be achieved when you install it, by passing -b to the Options to gpsd prompt, or, if you have already installed gpsd, you simply need to change the default parameters, as detailed below:

  • Start up your Pi and open the default file for gpsd with:

sudo nano /etc/default/gpsd

  • Set the parameters to look like this:

gpsd default settings

  • That’s it. Exit and reboot.

From the gpsd man page:

-b

Broken-device-safety mode, otherwise known as read-only mode. A few bluetooth and USB receivers lock up or become totally inaccessible when probed or reconfigured; see the hardware compatibility list on the GPSD project website for details. This switch prevents gpsd from writing to a receiver. This means that gpsd cannot configure the receiver for optimal performance, but it also means that gpsd cannot break the receiver. A better solution would be for Bluetooth to not be so fragile. A platform independent method to identify serial-over-Bluetooth devices would also be nice.

The read-only mode was a simple solution to a problem that plagued our group for over a week. If you are finding your Pi-connected USB or Bluetooth GPS mysteriously goes in and out of RTK mode and you have exhausted other causes, such as poor satellite reception at the base receiver or incorrect RTCM messages at the roving receiver, try checking your gpsd default parameters and adding this option.

Decoding NMEA Sentences

NMEA sentences (pronounced nee-ma), are a standard format of data output for all GPS receivers. In other words, it’s the language GPS receivers use to communicate the data they produce and receive, such as time, latitude, longitude, altitude, GPS health, speed, etc.

NMEA stands for National Marine Electronics Association, the agency responsible for standardizing the language. The sentences were created as a means for marine electronics to all speak the same language, thus enabling digital communication between different devices.

The sentence structure consists of a string of comma separated values, beginning with a ‘$’ and ending with a checksum. They look like this:

nmea sentences

Each sentence is referred to as a message and tells useful information about the receiver and its positioning. The output above was obtained from a u-blox C94-M8P. Let’s take a closer look at the GNGGA sentence to understand what each field means. Note the contents of each field will be the same for all GGA sentences but minor variations may occur from one GNSS receiver to the next.

NMEA sentence

Message Identifier:  Identifies the source and type of information. The first two letters denote the Talker ID, identifying the source of the information. This sentence is a GN message, or Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), meaning a combination of navigation systems was used to obtain the message data. Common talker ID’s are listed below.

Talker ID Constellation Country
GA Galileo European Union
GB BeiDou China
GL GLONASS Russia
GP GPS United States
GN combination (GPS+GLONASS) multiple

The next three letters define the message content. GGA denotes GPS fix data. Some common messages are listed below.

Message ID Meaning
GGA GPS position, time, and fix data
GLL Latitude and longitude data
GNS GNSS position, time, and fix data
GRS GNSS range residuals (error-related data)
GSA Satellite information and dilution of precision (DOP: see HDOP below)

Time:  Universal Time Coordinated (UTC) in hhmmss.ss.

Latitude:  Latitude in decimal degrees (ddmm.mmmm).

North/South Indicator:  North or south of the Equator.

Longitude:  Longitude in decimal degrees (ddmm.mmmm).

East/West Indicator:  East or west of the Prime Meridian.

Quality Indicator:  The quality of the GNSS data — what kind of fix the receiver has obtained.

0 — No fix
1 — Standard GPS (2D/3D) fix
2 — Differential GPS (DGPS) fix
3 — Precise Positioning System (PPS) fix — for government use only
4 — RTK fixed solution
5 — RTK float solution
6 — Estimated (Dead Reckoning, or DR) fix

Satellites Used:  Number of satellites used in solution.

HDOP:  Horizontal Dilution of Precision — a measure of confidence in the solution. Lower numbers indicate a higher confidence level. Thus, the 99.99 shown here denotes highly inaccurate measurements. Refer to Wikipedia’s Dilution of Precision article for more information.

Altitude:  Altitude above mean sea level.

Units:  Units used for altitude or geoidal separation (M = meters).

Geoidal Separation:  Difference between the reference ellipsoid and mean sea level based on the geodetic model WGS84.

DGPS Station ID:  ID of the differential reference station used for DGPS. Blank when DGPS is not used.

Checksum:  Used for data validation.

 

The GNGGA sentence provides all the data one needs for most GNSS analysis and is what we’ll use when we write our script converting latitude, longitude, altitude (LLA) to a north, east, down (NED) coordinate system. However, other sentences may be useful, depending on your navigation needs. Below are some great resources I used in compiling this information.

u-blox 8 / M8 Receiver Description (pdf) — Includes a full breakdown of all NMEA sentences used in u-blox 8 / M8 receivers.

Trimble’s NMEA-0183 Overview

ESRI’s article on Mean Sea Level, GPS, and the Geoid

Eric Raymond’s extensive page on NEMA sentences

u-blox tutorials

For my research project, I’ve worked pretty extensively with a certain Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) application board: the u-blox C94-M8P, which includes two u-blox NEO-M8P-2 receivers. It’s a highly accurate GNSS module with tons of cool functionalities (like anti-jamming capabilities) but takes quite the learning curve to be able to understand its various uses and settings.

So I’m starting this website by writing up a series of tutorials explaining some of the things I’ve learned about the C94-M8P and GNSS, such as:

  • how GPS works
  • all about NMEA sentences
  • what are RTCM messages
  • how RTK GPS works
  • using u-center, u-blox’s evaluation software
  • saving configuration settings with u-center
  • configuring the C94-M8P for base/rover mode
  • enabling RTCM messages on the C94-M8P
  • achieving RTK mode on the C94-M8P
  • troubleshooting why the receiver won’t achieve RTK fixed mode
  • using gpsd to interface with the C94-M8P on the Raspberry Pi
  • how gpsd can interfere with a GNSS receiver and how to fix it
  • converting latitude, longitude, and altitude to a north, east, down coordinate system
  • finding distance between base and rover

I’ve gathered this knowledge through a combination of research, reading u-blox manuals, browsing their Q&A forum (and especially learning from clive1), and my own trial and error. My hope is to contribute to the free library of online knowledge that I have benefited from and help others with similar technical problems to those I encountered.