Terrestrial GPS flies through trials

Our global positioning infrastructure is old and vulnerable. Now the race for redundancy is underway.

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In short order, GPS has become the backbone of consumer technology and critical infrastructure for navigation and timing applications. Then, it should give you pause to contemplate how vulnerable that 31 satellite array is and the consequences of a catastrophic malfunction or major attack.

Says Jeff Shepard from Microcontroller Tips:

GPS/GNSS/PNT jamming, spoofing, and other forms of interference are growing in frequency and severity. And space-based systems are not immune to severe space weather or cyber-attack. According to a London School of Economics report, loss of satellite navigation for five days would cost the U.K.  more than £5.1 billion. And according to the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, failure of the GPS would cost the US economy $1 billion a day and up to $1.5 billion a day if it occurred during planting season for farmers. But GPS outages are surprisingly common.

There are alternatives to GPS in various stages of development. The U.S. Air Force, a critical user of GPS, has launched GPS III satellites that offer significantly more resilience against jamming attacks. The Europeans are also seeking to augment their satellite navigation array with 5G technologies.

Among several terrestrial alternatives, one by next-gen GPS developer NextNav recently got high marks in an evaluation by the Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The trial tested the timing redundancy of NextNav's TerraPoiNT system in a number of scenarios, including instances of GPS outages, spoofing, and jamming, which are issues of increasing frequency and growing concern. The GPS-free network proved capable of powering critical national infrastructure in the event of a 72-hour GPS outage.

"GPS is critical infrastructure, but it has its limitations," said Ganesh Pattabiraman, co-founder and CEO of NextNav. "In working with DHS S&T, we've validated that TerraPoiNT can serve as an important backup to GPS and ensure the resilience and continuity of our nation's most critical systems, including next-generation telecommunications networks, financial services, and power grids."

Using a dedicated, terrestrial network of transmitters, NextNav delivers critical positioning, navigation, and timing services where GPS can't: indoors and in urban areas. Terrestrial transmitters deployed around a service area triangulate against a device's location, much like a GPS satellite array. Unlike national space-based systems, however, the proximity of NextNav's transmitters makes the signal strength 100,000 times that of GPS, resulting in fast, accurate calculations that work well in urban environments, where GPS can be finicky or nonexistent. 

The successful trial builds on recent evaluations of TerraPoiNT conducted by independent bodies. Earlier this year, the Department of Transportation (DOT) evaluated 11 alternate PNT solutions, in which each was rigorously tested across applications and scenarios. As a result of the evaluation, the DOT named TerraPoiNT the top solution across all PNT categories.

As development in the global positioning space increases and diversifies, we're going to continue seeing a flurry of terrestrial-based solutions.