The Russian GLONASS global satellite navigation system went down for 13 hours on April 2, but it’s not causing much of a stir outside of GPS followers. Several leading industry experts think this silence is a grave mistake. Locata Corporation CEO Nunzio Gumbale writes about a need for change, stressing the need for a diverse mix of redundant technologies to safeguard against outages.
The world’s global positioning industry watched in disbelief on April 2, 2014, as all of the 24 GLONASS satellites that make up Russia’s equivalent of the GPS system failed at once. This unprecedented and deeply worrying total disruption of what is one half of the world’s operational global navigation satellite constellations shook the industry, and unequivocally confirmed the public warnings that have been voiced for years by Locata Corporation and other prominent industry experts.
“There is no way you can misinterpret this clear sign of the elephant in the room,” said Nunzio Gambale, CEO of Locata Corporation. “We have been telling the industry for years that you cannot have a critically important capability like GPS without also having a backup! What is Plan B if the satellite systems fail? What replaces the space signal when there is a problem? If anyone needed a sign to understand why Locata has spent years inventing and developing the world’s first local terrestrial equivalent of the GPS system, then Wednesday’s meltdown of a complete global satellite navigation system is it. This event should terrify every nation, government, and company that depends on navigation satellites for their business or, in some cases, their very lives.”
The navigation and timing functions of the global positioning systems are integrated into the core of almost every modern technology. Society has come to rely on these technologies as a foundation for global commerce and communication. Everyone has become very familiar with the signals being used for personal applications, such as navigating to an address or finding the closest sushi restaurant. Yet few understand that satellite navigation and timing signals now underpin the world’s banking systems, stock exchanges, digital TV and Internet, cell phone networks, and, in some cases, the national electricity supply. GPS, in particular, plays a crucial role in transportation, shipping, and logistics, serving as the enabling technology for critical functions like air traffic control. Reliability is therefore not just important; it is essential across all applications. Locata and others, such as the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (RNTF) in Washington, D.C., have tirelessly highlighted the need for redundant terrestrial systems that will back up expensive, vulnerable, and aging global satellite navigation constellations while simultaneously providing the local control and resiliency that satellite-based systems simply cannot deliver.
Commenting on this GLONASS outage for GPS World, Dr. Richard Langley, a professor in the Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering at the University of New Brunswick, stated that this is “… another reason to have backups. And not just other Global Navigation Satellite Systems.” This sentiment was echoed strongly by many prominent experts, including Professor Chris Rizos of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales. “This catastrophic failure of one of the world’s two global satellite navigation constellations is a wakeup call for all of us,” said Rizos. “We ignore the possibility of these ‘Black Swan’ events at our own peril.”
Russian authorities have not reported the exact cause of the GLONASS outage. Theories are circulating that blame faulty system and/or software upgrades, recent solar flares that could cause radio communication outages, or even the possibility that this was a targeted cybersecurity attack. No matter the cause, fixing the outage took close to 13 hours. During that time, Russia’s version of the GPS was crippled and unusable. The disruption was immediately felt around the world, especially in professional applications, such as tractor automation for farming, machine control and robotics in mining and heavy industry, and in the national infrastructure used by surveyors and industry across many countries. GPS World reported that during the outage, an engineer from one U.S.-based, high-precision global satellite navigation manufacturer said, “We are currently fielding calls from customers all over the world who are experiencing GLONASS ‘outages’ and we have advised customers to switch GLONASS tracking off on our receivers. We don’t have any better information on when normal service is likely to resume from GLONASS satellites. If you do, let me know!”
“This is a wakeup call for the world,” said Professor Brett Biddington, a respected space and cybersecurity expert from the School of Computer and Security Science at Edith Cowan University. “The prospect of a software glitch, whether unintentional or intentional seems highly likely. It shows just how interlinked the physical and cyber worlds have now become. If it was a deliberate attack, however, it points to a changing face of warfare where the real enemy may be impossible to detect and deter until very damaging strikes, such as an attack on the GPS system, have already taken place. The vital point here is that this is no longer just a question for scientists and technologists. A locally controlled backup system for this essential signal is a national policy question of the highest order.”
Locata Corporation and other industry authorities have long testified on global satellite navigation vulnerabilities and the need for diverse technology options to strengthen and back up GPS, GLONASS, and other systems. Locata developed an extremely robust and elegant new solution. The company has been awarded a “sole-source” contract by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to provide Locata’s terrestrially based alternative positioning for military applications where GPS has been completely jammed. The first wide-area Locata system is being deployed now at the famed White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The USAF demonstrated that the White Sands Locata network delivers what has been independently described as “science fiction levels of performance” over a 2,500 square mile area. The Locata system positions aircraft flying up to 35 miles away to an accuracy of better than six inches.
“There is no other technology that can do this, and it’s delivered in the complete absence of GPS,” continued Gambale. “What is being demonstrated at White Sands is that Locata supplies precisely the same function as GPS, even when there is no GPS available! That’s exactly what you need if the satellites fail. We’re proud to have developed this unique technology advancement from scratch, and have now begun to deliver this valuable new functionality to our commercial partners around the world.”
“There is a massive failure on the part of global satellite navigation experts that claim there is no way to protect against such events except to have more satellite constellations,” continued Rizos. “Other, non-satellite options clearly exist. Investment in these systems could protect our critical industries from denial of positioning and timing.”
Gambale and the other experts stressed, however, that while the GLONASS failure was an alarming event, in many ways the world was fortunate on April 2. “Honestly, most of the world simply has no idea just how close we came here to global calamity. If this report was about a GPS failure instead of a GLONASS failure – and it could very easily have been – then the entire world would have plunged into a catastrophe. This event is the navigation equivalent of a ‘close call moment,’ and from here on out no one can even question that this is a really serious problem that must be addressed. If this outage had occurred to the GPS constellation, industries and governments alike would experience global mayhem. A respected industry expert that has asked to remain anonymous recently shared, ‘This is a shot across the bow; a warning for the whole world. If there was a sustained GPS outage, it would cause a global financial nuclear winter from which it would take us decades to recover.’”
Gambale concluded, “I shudder to think of the consequences if GPS was to shut down in the same way that GLONASS went black on April 2. As much as I want unequivocal proof to show how desperately our Locata systems are needed, I’m really, really glad it didn’t happen to GPS. The world needs to understand it has become critically dependent on GPS, and we need action to develop local backups like Locata around places like airports and other strategically important areas – now! We must not wait until we are faced with another seemingly impossible event like a complete satellite constellation failure. We may not dodge this bullet a second time.”
Locata terrestrial positioning technologies complement GPS by setting up ground-based transmitters, called LocataLites, to create a local constellation called a LocataNet. Once properly deployed, Locata’s unique nanosecond-accurate TimeLoc system synchronizes the network, which allows it to replicate the positioning capabilities of GPS – locally. Locata makes positioning more accurate and more sustainable in outdoor and indoor environments (effectively expanding GPS’s reach). Today, LocataNets are running in areas ranging from small warehouses, to open-cut mines, to wide-area aircraft approach-and-landing systems, to vast areas for aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) uses.