Killet Software Ing.-GbR - short: KilletSoft - is a software company, which was established in the year 1991. The society is divided into the ranges "Geodetic Standard Software", "Development Tools for Geoinformatics" and "International Geodata". The industrial sectors of emphasis of the companies supplied by KilletSoft are consulting engineers, GIS developers, Internet marketing, public utilities, logistics, telecommunications, security and public services.
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Are the Reference Systems WGS84 and ETRS89 really the same?
Considering the continental drift in transformation of GPS coordinates with TRANSDAT and
GeoDLL geosoftware

Kempen (Germany), September 01, 2012 - Revision of the release from 2010
Killet Software Ing.-GbR
 Download Press Release and Worksheet as MS WORD file
Published in gis.Business, Das Magazin für Geoinformation, Booklet 8/2010
Published in GEOconnexion International Magazine, Geo:Connexion Ltd, Booklet Dec/Jan 2011

Internet searches often imply that the Reference System WGS84, which is used with GPS measurements, and the European Reference System ETRS89 are virtually identical and that Coordinate Transformation between the two systems is unnecessary. In fact, the positions calculated by these two Reference Systems currently deviate by more than half a meter. For the purposes of navigation or geodetic infonomics, this does not present a problem as here the need for precision is negligible, and thus a conversion between the two systems is superfluous. However, for high-precision surveying work within the framework of geodesic spatial referencing and for data with legal effects, like the Land Survey Register, this difference must be accounted for.

This article addresses the following two questions:
  1. How does this difference in measurement between the two Reference Systems come about?
  2. What mathematical possibilities are there to compensate for this difference?

The target audience for this scientific article is users with geodesic expertise, developers of geodesic software, GIS consultants and engineering offices, as well as administrative GIS officers who deal with GPS surveying and/or different Coordinate Reference Systems (CRS).

Abbr.: CRS
Coordinate Reference System

A CRS contains two different elements - the Coordinate System and the Reference System (datum).
The Coordinate System describes how the coordinates of the CRS are expressed by calculation rules and projection equations. Examples: Ellipsoidal coordinates, Cartesian coordinates, UTM, Gauss Kruger.
The Reference System defines how the CRS is related to the earth. Examples: ED50, DHDN, ETRS89.
Unified geodetically Europe
INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community) is a European commission with the goal to create a unified spatial data base for all of Europe. Background of this scientific article is that in all domains of geodesy by INSPIRE guidelines required conversions of local CRS of the European countries to Europe-wide uniform CRS, based on the Reference System ETRS89, must be done. Under European legislation INSPIRE proposes for different applications and scales following CRS:
  1. ETRS-TMzn: ETRS89 Transverse Mercator Coordinate Reference System (UTM)
  2. ETRS-LCC: ETRS89 Lambert Conformal Conic Coordinate Reference System
  3. ETRS-LAEA: ETRS89 Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area Coordinate Reference System

The Reference System WGS84, used for GPS measurements, is based on the global International Terrestrial Reference System ITRS that is fixed on the earth's center of mass. Due to plate tectonics, the Eurasian continent within the ITRS is slowly moving upon the surface of the earth in a north-easterly direction.

ETRS89 is a geocentric Reference System for Europe based on the state of the International Terrestrial Reference System ITRS as of January 1, 1989. As the Eurasian continental plate is largely static, ETRS89 provides Europe with a Reference System that is uniform and time-independent. The relationships between coordinates located on the stable part of the European plate thus remain unaltered with ETRS89.

ITRS / ETRS89 Difference
Img. 1: Difference between ITRS and ETRS89
Source: Prof. Dr.-Ing. Wolfgang Augath;
Beiträge des Vermessungswesens zur Ortung
und Navigation im Wandel
; Dresden
Continental Drift
Since ETRS89 was realized until today (2012), a difference of 50 to 60 centimeters has accrued between WGS84/ITRS and ETRS89 which continues to grow dynamically at a rate of approximately 2.5 centimeters annually. The difference varies depending upon the location of a given coordinate on the Eurasian plate, because the continent slowly but steadily rotates around the Earth center of mass. The vectors representing displacements and the angles representing rotations are graphically depicted in Img. 1.

Accuracy of GPS measurement methods
  1. For civilian use GPS satellites furnish signals by which positions with simple GPS receiver directly can be determined within accuracy about 8 meters.
  2. DGPS is a service, which improves the accuracy of positioning by a radio-transmitted error correction of one or more reference stations in the range between 0.3 and 2.5 meters.
  3. Satellite positioning services such as SAPOS and its specifications HEPS, GPPS and GHPS, for instance, a joint project of the working groups of the surveying authorities of the German federal states, can increase the positioning accuracy to within mere centimeters. The satellite positioning service ASCOS, developed by AXIO-NET GmbH, or the Federal Office for Cartography and Geodesy's reference network GREF can also improve the positioning accuracy to within this range.

Converting GPS coordinates to ETRS89
For direct measurements the conversion to ETRS89 is usually not necessary, as it in terms of the systemic high inaccuracy of several meters would not lead to a significant improvement. Here, the equating of WGS84 and ETRS89 can be tolerated. However, to maintain the high accuracy of DGPS and SAPOS, for the transformation of GPS coordinates from the WGS84/ITRS Reference System to ETRS89 exact transformation parameters are required. To this end, precise parameter sets are calculated and regularly made public as ITRS annual realizations or WGS84 epochs. The WGS84/ITRS GPS coordinates are converted to ETRS89 with their given epoch's parameter set. For an exact calculation, it is therefore necessary to know the epoch, that is, the year the GPS data was implemented. These realizations are issued using the year in the form of ITRS89 for the year 1989, successively up to ITRS12 for the year 2012 and annually ongoing.

TRANSDAT supports GPS epochs
KilletSoft's TRANSDAT coordinate conversion program provides a module "GPS Measurements - ITRS epochs" that can carry out very precise Coordinate Transformations from current GPS measurements to the Reference System ETRS89 using the parameter set ITRSyy for the current year. In addition, the module enables the transformation of GPS coordinates to ETRS89 of any older epochs since 1989 and of future epochs. The inverse transformation of ETRS89 to any WGS84/ITRS epochs is also possible. To align GPS coordinates, it is also possible to transform data from one WGS84/ITRS epoch to another. For all this special transformations various geographic notations and UTM coordinates are used as Coordinate Systems.

The ITRS parameter sets available in TRANSDAT will be dynamically continued in the coming years. By using the ITRS parameter set of the current year for all conversions between WGS84 and ETRS89 or the local systems of the European countries the highest possible accuracy will be reached. Current WGS84 coordinates can be converted without loss of accuracy due to continental drift e.g. in German Gauss Krueger coordinates using the Reference Systems DHDN, RD, PD and S42. The same applies in the different countries modules for the local CRS all European countries.

A sample calculation with TRANSDAT
TRANSDAT Coordinate Transformation
Img. 2: Sample calculation with TRANSDAT
For example, here will be shown how to convert highly accurate GPS coordinates from an earlier epoch to the Europe-wide CRS UTM/ETRS89 specified by INSPIRE with consideration of the continental drift.

It is assumed that a large amount of GPS coordinates are stored line by line in a text file. The coordinates are present as Geographic Coordinates in the degree notation in WGS84 datum. The GPS campaign took place in 2010, which is the ITRS epoch ITRS10. The settings marked with 1 must be selected for the source coordinates. The converted coordinates should be stored into a new file as UTM coordinates in the Reference System ETRS89. Mark 2 shows the settings needed in TRANSDAT.
Then a click on the button 3 opens the window for the file settings. There all necessary settings and formats for the input file and for the output file can be made. Clicking the button 4 starts the Coordinate Transformation. A moment later accurately calculated results with consideration of the continental drift between the years 1989 and 2010 are contained in the output file named before.
By the way: The last calculated coordinate can be viewed at any time on OpenStreetMap™ and Google Maps / Earth™ maps and satellite images. This requires that a connection to the Internet is present or the Google Earth™ program is installed on the computer.

Precise Coordinate Transformations in own applications
To incorporate the geodesic calculations used by the TRANSDAT program into programs of your own, the GeoDLL dynamic link library is at your disposal. All of the geodesic calculations included here are based on strict formulas that we use to attain high-precision results. GeoDLL also includes the ITRS parameter set releases and the essential high-precision transformation routines. To ensure that the geodesic functions can be implemented on other platforms, the GeoDLL C++ source code is also available.

Thanks to the multilingual user interface and documentation of the software described here, its range of operation is worldwide. Hundreds of international and national Coordinate and Reference Systems from all continents are supported. The emphasis, however, is on the diverse Coordinate Systems landscape of the European countries and the United States and the Europe-wide Coordinate and Reference Systems as predetermined by INSPIRE. The software is used by engineering offices and GIS developers in all industrial sectors and in public administration to carry out precise Coordinate Transformation.
You can find additional information and downloadable test versions of TRANSDAT and GeoDLL software at ff.

Logo QR-URL Author / Writer
Dipl.-Ing. Fred Killet
Escheln 28a
47906 Kempen (Germany)

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