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Charles Trimble

Christopher Columbus relied on the compass and stars as his navigational tools. As the harbinger of a new era, Charles …

Christopher Columbus relied on the compass and stars as his navigational tools. As the harbinger of a new era, Charles Trimble, president, CEO, and joint founder of Trimble Navigation, sets his course based on man-made stars.

Trimble’s company produces a range of products based on global positioning system technology. Using GPS, the U.S. Defense Department’s .24 Naystar satellites send signals enabling those equipped with receivers to triangulate their position anywhere on Earth-often within 1 millimeter.

Trimble Navigation, based in Sunnyvale, CA, is the GPS industry leader with 36 percent of the $420 million world market. Besides dominating the global mapping and surveying sector, the company also is a major player in applications for general aviation and marine navigation, oil exploration, seismic monitoring, and mobile communication. While commercial GPS applications comprise 85 percent of sales, the U.S. government tapped Trimble during the 1991 Persian Gulf War to arm American forces with hand-held GPS receivers. The company’s revenues last year increased 17 percent to $149 million.

“We look at satellites as providing a whole new information utility that is changing the way people live and work,” Trimble says.

“Trimble Navigation has the best technology of the commercial players,” says Patrick Houghton, an analyst with Smith Barney. “It is the leading company in

GPS with high-quality equipment, and it will continue to grow well.”

GPS technology had its genesis at Hewlett-Packard, where Trimble, then an R&D manager, was assigned to a top-secret marine-navigation project. But in 1979, HP bailed out of the program, at which point Trimble bought the technology, ended his 14-year tenure with HP, and founded Trimble Navigation with three fellow scientists.

Trimble’s competitors include Garmin International, Magellan Systems, Japan Radio, Rockwell International, subsidiaries of Sony and Panasonic, and a host of smaller, specialist companies. All these companies oscillate between $5 million and $45 million in annual GPS revenues, and all are jockeying for a bigger share of a market industry analysts reckon may double to $800 million by the end of 1995.

“Our edge on the competition is that we provide the total solution to the commercial user,” including raw technology, hardware, and applications, says Trimble, 52, who recently completed a two-year term on the Space Policy Advisory Board, a government task force set up to find commercial applications for technologies or products used in space.

As defense dollars continue to shrink, commercial applications will assume even greater importance. As a result, Trimble invests one-quarter of its revenues and 2 million man-hours each year in commercial R&D. Some recent innovations include systems that pinpoint disasters. In the wake of the Los Angeles earthquake earlier this year, Trimble technology facilitated the efficient deployment of relief teams and saved lives and millions of dollars worth of property.

Among corporate clients, Westinghouse Electric uses Trimble hardware and software in its fleet-management systems for public-transit districts: Trimble has entered the mobile-computing sector through alliances with Grid Systems, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and GO Corp., all of which will put GPS receivers into mobile and pen-based computers. In addition, Trimble and Orbital Communications, a unit of Dulles, VA-based Orbital Sciences, are collaborating to develop hand-held de- vices that function both as GPS receivers and Orbcomm terminals.

Applications still on the drawing board include SlikTrak, a system that monitors and maps oil spills. Floating electronic buoys gauge and track the drifting slick 4 and enable response teams and environmentalists to assess damage and protect endangered wildlife.

“The real draw to working in this 4 high-technology arena is to create things that didn’t exist before,” says Trimble, growing excited and taking on the air of a mad professor. “In turn, that gives me the energy I need to do what I have to.”

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