Most modern technology, including smartphones, runs on GPS. But the system might be more prone to failure than you think. The US lacks backup geolocation technology, meaning any outage or disruption can be catastrophic. Russia has threatened to destroy GPS satellites, and recently faulty GPS signals temporarily shut down a Dallas airport.
Fortunately, companies are stepping in to protect GPS. NextNav recently signed a deal to provide a new technology called TerraPoiNT, which will act as a backup for GPS and leverage existing LTE and 5G networks. “TerraPoiNT’s signal is over 100,000 times stronger than GPS, and its signal encryption makes it more resilient to interference and spoofing,” said NextNav CEO Ganesh Pattabiraman in an interview with Digital Trends. It’s a fascinating statistic – and a glimpse into how we can (and should) protect GPS.
Why GPS is so important and so fragile
GPS provides positioning, navigation, timing and cellular phone location services. Its widespread availability has made it a global utility integrated with industries and infrastructure, from the power grid to emergency services to financial transactions. But, Pattabiraman said, the system is “incredibly vulnerable” to disruption — including jamming and spoofing.
Sam Brown, a professional radio engineer who runs a radio frequency blog at OneSDR, said in an interview that GPS communications receivers are often jammed by readily available and cheap jammers.
“A jammer emits a signal that interferes with signal reception and as a result the GPS receiver cannot provide location information,” he added.
In a recent example, problems with GPS signals caused flights to be grounded at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The problem was traced to a mysterious source of interference and closed the airport for two days.
Possible foreign interference is another problem. Russia has boasted that it can turn off the satellites that provide our GPS.
“An incident such as a major solar flare or damage to commercial satellites could potentially shut down numerous critical services that we rely on every day,” Pattabiraman said. “For this reason, the U.S. federal government has recognized the importance of implementing alternative PNT technologies to ensure GPS resiliency, including through an executive order to “involve the public and private sectors to determine responsible use of PNT services and to promote”.
Alex Damato, acting chief executive of the GPS Innovation Alliance, an industry group, said in an interview that his organization takes a technology-neutral stance when it comes to backup GPS solutions.
However, he said GPSIA agrees that “the best strategy to achieve stable PNT service is to pursue multiple technologies to encourage diversity of PNT capabilities.” It is also important that backup solutions are able to offer equivalent capabilities and a level of performance on par with GPS technologies and are dictated by the PNT needs of each industry rather than government contracts.
A problem decades in the making
Part of the problems with GPS stems from its design as a Cold War relic. GPS was designed for military use in conflict zones where civilian networks were unavailable — to launch missiles a thousand miles through the upper atmosphere or to help carriers full of planes cross the ocean, said Tim Sylvester, founder and CEO of Integrated Roadways , in an interview. It was never intended to help pedestrians and vehicles find their way in peaceful urban areas.
“This mismatch between design and use means that GPS has several significant shortcomings, such as B. low accuracy and high latency,” said Sylvester. These challenges are a product of the GPS signals coming from satellites thousands of miles away, and the downsides are a result of physics that cannot be resolved.”
GPS has its drawbacks when it comes to a new generation of self-driving cars. GPS’s low accuracy means you can’t use it effectively to know which lane someone is in, which is a big problem when driving, and high latency means your position information will degrade as you move fast moving around, which is also a big problem when driving, Sylvester said. Because GPS comes from thousands of miles away, accuracy is even worse in urban areas with lots of tall buildings, as the tall buildings block satellites that aren’t in exactly the right position to transmit past the buildings.
“These limitations are completely at odds with the use of GPS for connected and autonomous vehicles, which require high accuracy, low latency, and reliable operation in densely populated urban areas, since all traffic is in densely populated urban areas,” Sylvester said. “Just as newspapers have been replaced by online news, GPS has been a great stepping stone, but it’s time to move beyond that. In fact, most apps are already ignoring GPS and silently replacing it with alternatives like Bluetooth, but this is usually hidden from the user because what matters to the user is good service, not how to get it.”
The coming wave of autonomous vehicles may require a better tracking system. According to Sylvester, the most promising alternative to GPS for connected and autonomous vehicles is called APNT. PNT stands for Position, Navigation, Telemetry. Depending on who you ask, the “A” can stand for supported, enhanced, insured, alternative, or other nearly synonymous terms.
APNT is integrated with local infrastructure, including cellular antennas, Bluetooth beacons, Wi-Fi, or other “alternative” means of positioning, navigating, and receiving vehicle telemetry.
“These methods have been cobbled together over the past 15 years using a combination of smartphone components and readily available communication methods, and while they’re great for tourists roaming Market Street or Times Square trying to track down a sandwich that’s less than Costing $30, they’re ad hoc in nature means they can’t rely on their autonomy,” Sylvester said.
Integrated Roadways has developed Smart Pavement that builds APNT capabilities right into the road, using high-precision in-road sensors and supported by an ultra-low-latency edge network, “so that any road upgraded with Smart Pavement everything has the APNT capabilities needed for connected and autonomous vehicles built into the roadway and designed from the ground up to be a reliable, secure, industrial-grade network that offers the features required for next-generation mobility demands are,” said Sylvester
Where are we going according to the GPS?
NextNav’s system isn’t the only option as a GPS backup. Max Perez, vice president of research and security solutions at ColdQuanta, said in an interview that quantum positioning systems (QPS) have the potential to serve as an alternative to GPS. Quantum properties drive the positioning system, and unlike GPS, QPS does not require ongoing calibration with external signals to work.
“A QPS only needs to know its starting point to function, and can calculate how fast it’s been moving, how long, and in which direction to determine its current position,” Perez said. “Quantum Positioning Systems (QPS) would complement GPS around the world as it offers significantly improved navigation security. Use cases for QPS include navigation for airplanes, submarines, autonomous cars, and more. Advantages of QPS over GPS include accuracy, no dependency on satellites, indoor use, and less vulnerability to hacking.”
Damato said the GPS industry is rapidly innovating and developing solutions that make GPS more accurate and resilient. These solutions include GPS receivers, the satellites that provide those GPS signals, and the ground control segment that tracks and monitors GPS performance.
“A major modernization of the GPS constellation is underway which, when completed, will deliver dozens of new satellites offering significantly higher accuracy and improved anti-jamming capabilities,” he added.