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Iphone Application : Implementing Location Services - Understanding Core Location

12/12/2012 6:28:33 PM
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Core Location is a framework in the iOS SDK that provides the location of the device. Depending on the iPhone and its current state (within cell service, inside a building, and so forth), any of three technologies can be used: GPS, cellular, or WiFi. GPS is the most accurate of these technologies and will be used first by Core Location if GPS hardware is present. If the device does not have GPS hardware, or if obtaining the current location with GPS fails, Core Location falls back to cellular and then to WiFi.

Location Manager

Core Location is simple to understand and to use despite the powerful array of technologies behind it. (Some of it had to be launched into space on rockets!) Most of the functionality of Core Location is available from the Location Manager, which is an instance of the CLLocationManager class. You use the Location Manager to specify the frequency and accuracy of the location updates you are looking for, and to turn on and off receiving those updates.

To use a location manager, you create an instance of the manager, specify a location manager delegate that will receive location updates, and start the updating, like this:

CLLocationManager *locManager = [[CLLocationManager alloc] init];
locManager.delegate = self;
[locManager startUpdatingLocation];

When the application is done receiving updates (a single update is often sufficient), stop location updates with location manager’s stopUpdatingLocation method.

Location Manager Delegate

The location manager delegate protocol defines the methods for receiving location updates. There are two methods in the delegate relating to location: locationManager:didUpdateToLocation:fromLocation and locationManager:didFailWithError.

The locationManager:didUpdateToLocation:fromLocation method’s arguments are the location manager object instance and two CLLocation objects, one for the new location, and one for the previous location. The CLLocation instances provide a coordinate property that is a structure containing longitude and latitude expressed in CLLocationDegrees. CLLocationDegrees is just an alias for a floating-point number of type double.

We’ve already mentioned that different approaches to geolocating have different inherit accuracies and that each approach may be more or less accurate depending on the number of points (satellites, cell towers, WiFi hotspots) it has available to use in its calculations. CLLocation passes this confidence measure along in the horizontalAccuracy property.

The location’s accuracy is provided as a circle, and the true location could lie anywhere within that circle. The circle is defined by the coordinate property as the center of the circle, and the horizontalAccuracy property as the radius of the circle in meters. The larger the horizontalAccuracy property, the larger the circle defined by it will be, so the less confidence there is in the accuracy of the location. If the horizontalAccuracy property is negative, it is an indication that the coordinate is completely invalid and should be ignored.

In addition to longitude and latitude, each CLLocation provides altitude above or below sea level in meters. The altitude property is a CLLocationDistance, which is also just an alias for a floating-point number of type double. A positive number is an altitude above sea level, and a negative number is below sea level. There is another confidence factor, this one called verticalAccuracy, that indicates how accurate the altitude is. A positive verticalAccuracy indicates that the altitude could be off, plus or minus, by that many meters. A negative verticalAccuracy means the altitude is invalid.

An implementation of the location manager delegate’s locationManager:didUpdateToLocation:fromLocation method that logs the longitude, latitude, and altitude is shown in Listing 1.

Listing 1.
- (void)locationManager:(CLLocationManager *)manager
    didUpdateToLocation:(CLLocation *)newLocation
           fromLocation:(CLLocation *)oldLocation {

    NSString *coordinateDesc = @"Not Available";
    NSString *altitudeDesc = @"Not Available";

    if (newLocation.horizontalAccuracy >= 0) {
        coordinateDesc = [NSString stringWithFormat:@"%f, %f +/- %f meters",

    if (newLocation.verticalAccuracy >= 0) {
        altitudeDesc = [NSString stringWithFormat:@"%f +/- %f meters",
                        newLocation.altitude, newLocation.verticalAccuracy];

    NSLog(@"Latitude/Longitude: %@   Altitude: %@", coordinateDesc,


The resulting log output looks like this:

Latitude/Longitude: 35.904392, -79.055735 +/- 76.356886 meters   Altitude: 28.000000 +/- 113.175757 meters


Watch Out!

CLLocation also provides a property speed, which is based on comparing the current location with the prior location and comparing the time and distance variance between them. Given the rate at which Core Location updates, the speed property is not very accurate unless the rate of travel is fairly constant.

Handling Location Errors

When your application begins tracking the user’s location, a warning will be displayed on the user’s screen, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Core Location asks permission to provide an application with location data.

If the user chooses to disallow location services, iOS will not prevent your application from running but will generate errors from the location manager.

When an error occurs, the location manager delegate’s locationManager:didFailWithError is called, letting you know the device cannot return location updates. A distinction is made as to the cause of the failure. If the user denies permission to the application, the error argument is kCLErrorDenied; if Core Location tries but cannot determine the location, the error is kCLErrorLocationUnknown; and if no source of trying to retrieve the location is available, the error is kCLErrorNetwork. Usually Core Location will continue to try to determine the location after an error, but after a user denial, it won’t, and it is good form to stop the location manager with location manager’s stopUpdatingLocation method and release the instance. An implementation of locationManager:didFailWithError is shown in Listing 2.

Listing 2.
- (void)locationManager:(CLLocationManager *)manager
       didFailWithError:(NSError *)error {

    if (error.code == kCLErrorLocationUnknown) {
        NSLog(@"Currently unable to retrieve location.");
    } else if (error.code == kCLErrorNetwork) {
        NSLog(@"Network used to retrieve location is unavailable.");
    } else if (error.code == kCLErrorDenied) {
        NSLog(@"Permission to retrieve location is denied.");
        [locMan stopUpdatingLocation];
        [locMan release];
        locMan = nil;

Watch Out!

It is important to keep in mind that the location manager delegate will not immediately receive a location; it usually takes a number of seconds for the device to pinpoint the location, and the first time it is used by an application, Core Location first asks the user’s permission. You should have a design in place for what the application will do while waiting for an initial location, and what to do if location information is unavailable because the user didn’t grant permission or the geolocation process failed. A common strategy that works for many applications is to fall back to a user-entered ZIP code.

Location Accuracy and Update Filter

It is possible to tailor the accuracy of the location to the needs of the application. An application that needs only the user’s country, for example, does not need 10-meter accuracy from Core Location and will get a much faster answer by asking for a more approximate location. This is done before you start the location updates by setting the location manager’s desiredAccuracy property. desiredAccuracy is an enumerated type, CLLocationAccuracy. Five constants are available with varying levels of precision (with current consumer technology, the first two are the same): kCLLocationAccuracyBest, kCLLocationAccuracyNearestTenMeters, kCLLocationNearestHundredMeters, kCLLocationKilometer, kCLLocationAccuracyThreeKilometers.

After updates on a location manager are started, updates continue to come into the location manager delegate until they are stopped. You cannot control the frequency of these updates directly, but you can control it indirectly with location manager’s distanceFilter property. The distanceFilter property is set before starting updates and specifies the distance in meters the device must travel (horizontally, not vertically) before another update is sent to the delegate.

For example, starting the location manager with settings suitable for following a walker’s progress on a long hike might look like this:

CLLocationManager *locManager = [[CLLocationManager alloc] init];
locManager.delegate = self;
locManager.desiredAccuracy = kCLLocationAccuracyHundredMeters;
locManager.distanceFilter = 200;
[locManager startUpdatingLocation];

Watch Out!

Each of the three methods of locating the device (GPS, cellular, and WiFi) can put a serious drain on the device’s battery. The more accurate an application asks the device to be in determining location, and the shorter the distance filter, the more battery the application will use. Be aware of the device’s battery life and only request location updates as accurately and as frequently as the application needs them. Stop location manager updates whenever possible to preserve the battery life of the device.

By the Way

The iPhone Simulator can provide just one location update: Apple HQ in Cupertino, California.

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