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Faux signals for real results: GNSS simulators keep up with a panoply of new signals

August 14, 2023  - By
Spirent’s GSS6450 record and playback system (RPS) used to record live-sky signals in an urban environment for testing in the lab.(Image: Spirent Federal Systems)

Spirent’s GSS6450 record and playback system (RPS) used to record live-sky signals in an urban environment for testing in the lab.(Image: Spirent Federal Systems)

These are interesting and challenging times for the makers of GNSS signal simulators.

For decades, developers and manufacturers of GNSS receivers have needed to simulate the satellites’ signals to test receivers in their labs and in the field. Meanwhile, users of GNSS receivers for critical missions — such as military operations and rocket launches — have needed to simulate the exact conditions (the number of satellites in line of sight, the positional dilution of precision, etc.) at specific points in time and space.

As the number of constellations, satellites and signals grew — especially in the past few years, with the completion of the BeiDou and Galileo constellations — simulator manufacturers were challenged to keep up. Threats of jamming and spoofing also increased. Then, a few companies began to develop new positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) constellations in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Now, it is common for simulators to require several hundred channels.

I discussed these challenges and the prospect for the simulation industry with representatives of five companies:

For the full transcripts of my interviews, click here. If you like this article, you will love the interview transcripts, which cover much more than I had room for here.

Legacy Constellations and New Ones

Simulator manufacturers cite a variety of challenges. According to Erbes, a big one is determining users’ requirements. “Often,” he said, “they can’t determine what the specs need to be. All they know is that they need it to work.” This is particularly true when mixing and matching receivers, IMUs, and components from different manufacturers, he pointed out.

For decades, there were only two GNSS constellations (GPS and GLONASS). A couple of years ago, two more came online (BeiDou and Galileo). Meanwhile, several regional augmentation systems were developed (SBAS, EGNOS, NavIC, QZSS and KASS), some of which may later grow into global systems. Now, new LEO-based systems are being developed. For simulator manufacturers, what was once clear “began to get fuzzy,” Erbes said. “If you ask members of our team right now how many constellations we support, you will not get a quick answer. We’re trying to be forward-looking and add everything that might be up there so lab users can develop and test.”

Multi-constellation simulation is a particularly challenging problem for groups that don’t have simulators, Erbes pointed out. “We have the advantage of having a software-defined architecture. We designed the software so that it is easy to add new constellations to it. Basically, once we’re given a proper interface control document (ICD), we’re only a couple of months away from a first draft implementation of that new signal. Then we iterate.”

 LabSat 3 Wideband compact GNSS simulator. (Image: Racelogic)

LabSat 3 Wideband compact GNSS simulator. (Image: Racelogic)

In the past few years, said Thomas, Racelogic “had to suddenly invent 15 new signals.” It makes a record-and-replay system — “You put a box in a car, on a bike, in a backpack, or on a rocket, and you record the raw GPS signals,” Thomas said — and another system in which it simulates the satellites’ signals “from pure principles.” The latter, he noted, has been “15 times the original work we thought it would be. However, as we add each signal it tends to get a bit simpler until they add new ways to encode signals, and then it gets complex again.”

Spirent Communications’ technology, Holbrow said, focuses around “its dedicated SDR hardware platform and software simulation engine, which provide performance, scalability and flexibility, within an open accessible architecture. Close collaboration with our selected partners ensures the opportunity to support and integrate new and emerging PNT technologies through their tools, applications and hardware.” Two other aspects that have continued to grow in importance have been “increased realism and test automation,” Holbrow said. “Both are areas in which Spirent continues to prioritize and invest R&D dollars.”

Spirent “can enable the user with effectively an arbitrary waveform simulator or ‘sandbox’ to experiment with different modulation schemes, different chipping rates, codes, bandwidths and navigation data content,” Holbrow said. “The increasing number of signals that we can support multiplies the permutations and combinations of test cases that users can do,” Hart added.

Not every simulator user is equally interested in simulating all the existing and emerging constellations. Those in the U.S. military market do not use foreign signals, pointed out Clark. However, they may want to understand how those signals could impact their vehicle, platform, or individual receiver.

LEO-based constellations “have become a buzzword in the last year or so,” Clark said. Because CAST Navigation’s simulators are modular and use an FPGA-based design, “we can add different satellite constellations or satellite protocols to our system,” he said. “However, we don’t offer anything commercially yet due to a lack of an official ICD, or any kind of documentation that defines any of these new LEO-based signals.”

Today, said Pielmeier, all high-end RF simulators must support “all existing GNSS systems with all related signal components on all frequencies.” Additionally, to remain competitive, they must be kept “up-to-date with the new and continuously evolving GNSS signals.” He added: “Beyond the L-band signals, we are also fully supporting the S-band signals of the NavIC constellation.”

The increased request for precise point positioning (PPP) corrections service, Pielmeier pointed out, was the driver for IFEN to add the High Accuracy Service (HAS) PPP-correction capability on Galileo’s E6-B signal to its next release. “We expect further improvements here during the next few years, especially to cover the emerging needs of the PPP-RTK market.” The advent of LEO-based PNT services, he said, makes this “the most important driver for the next five years, extending the signal frequencies beyond the current L- and S-band signals, seeing new modulations, two-way transfer and many more topics.”

Jamming and Spoofing

Concern about jamming and spoofing has increased significantly over the past several years. These, however, are not new concepts for simulator manufacturers. “In a way, simulation is ahead of this state of the world,” said Erbes. “Spoofing is similar to simulation. So, we already know how to do that.” That could change, however. “If new requirements come up, such as higher data rates or wider bandwidth waveforms or different types of waveforms, then we would have to adapt and add support for that kind of stuff.”

“Because our systems record and replay, they’re used a lot to record real-world jamming,” said Thomas. Regarding spoofing, Racelogic has just improved its signal simulation. “We can do seamless takeover of a GNSS signal in real time. We can reproduce the current ephemeris and almanac. If we transmit a sufficiently powerful signal, we can completely take over that device.”

Over the past five years, most of CAST Navigation’s customers have become much more interested in being able to simulate jamming and spoofing, Clark said. “If you’re doing anything of any importance in a contested environment, you’re going to come up against some type of spoofing and/or jamming interference.”

Pielmeier agreed that simulation of jamming and spoofing threats has been a major market driver in recent years. “Our latest RF simulator generation, NCS NOVA+,” he said, “fully supports all types of jamming and spoofing and is fully integrated into our RF simulators to enable coherent signal generation. With the coming safety-of-life and automated driving applications based on DFMC (SBAS/GBAS dual-frequency multi-constellation), the need to support advanced jamming and spoofing simulation solutions will remain a continuous driver.”

IFEN’s rf signal generator technology, based on a modular and highly flexible Software Defined Radio (SDR) platform. (Image: IFEN)

IFEN’s rf signal generator technology, based on a modular and highly flexible Software Defined Radio (SDR) platform. (Image: IFEN)

Simulating What Does Not Yet Exist

The current GNSS constellations broadcast signals that can be recorded, played back, and used to generate accurate simulations. For systems still being developed, however, simulator manufacturers must rely on each system’s ICD, if and when it is available. Even for established systems, the live sky signals may diverge from the ICD. “Is the simulator supposed to match live sky,” Erbes wondered, “or is it supposed to match the intended final state of the constellation, according to the ICD? This is a huge topic for M-code, which is ever changing, and has a very large ICD that is released incrementally. We’re constantly having to make changes to the simulator to match those releases.”

A big challenge for simulator manufacturers is to keep pace with new and evolving ICDs. “There are more constellations than ever, and the technology makes it easier to change signal architectures,” said Erbes. “We’re going to start talking about signals that can be reprogrammed on the fly. That’s going to make simulation more and more challenging.”

Simulating signals for new systems that are not yet deployed is a matter of “pure signals simulation,” said Thomas. “You go through the ICD line-by-line and work out the new schemes. You are very much reliant on every single word in that ICD.”

New LEO-based systems are not the only ones to present this challenge to simulator manufacturers. “L1C is another one of those problem child signals that we have developed,” said Clark. “All we can do is buy all the makes and models of L1C receivers available for sale and utilize our simulator, along with those receivers, to see whether things are good. We’ve asked the government for an L1C code sample, but it will not be available until the satellite manufacturers launch the satellites in their final configuration. Until then, we’ll develop to the ICD that’s been released and defined, then cross our fingers.”

Spirent’s core simulation engine and SDR “are agnostic of the constellation and signal type that’s being generated,” Holbrow said. “So, the underlying principles of accuracy, range rate, pseudo-range control, and delay, together with the RF fidelity from Spirent’s SDR+ Sim engine, can be readily manipulated to simulate the wealth of emerging signals, including LEO.” Additionally, when an ICD is not available, the company can enable its customers to use its tools “to readily populate elements of that ICD themselves.”

In the Lab vs. In the Field

“All our systems can be carried in a backpack, on a push bike, in a car,” said Thomas. “We do that deliberately, because we come from the automotive side of things, so we have to keep everything very small and compact. Some of our customers have put them in rockets, recording the signal as it goes up, or in boats. We have people walking around with an antenna on their wrist connected to one of our systems, so that they can simulate smartwatches.”

CAST Navigation has simulator packages that range “anywhere from shoebox size to nine-foot-tall racks,” said Clark. “They are all modular, so you can add options and capabilities over time. We have simulators that are used in the field. Some of the testing groups with the U.S. armed forces have used our simulators in the back of a Humvee along with other proprietary equipment to conduct their own field experiments.”

Spirent supports in-the-field use cases: its portable simulator can test PNT resilience while the DUT is receiving live-sky signals, and their record-and-playback system takes real-world soundings in a wideband RF environment for playback in the lab.

Currently, Pielmeier said, all IFEN simulators are designed for lab use. However, “we recognize an increased request for field-capable RF simulators, specifically to perform spoofing of real SIS to test deployed GNSS receivers in the field. Offering a portable in-field solution is in our mid-term planning, but not a current driver for our developments.”

Testing vs. Mission Planning

How do simulators used by receiver manufacturers in their labs and in the field to tweak existing receivers or develop new ones differ from those used for mission planning? “In most lab simulations, they can just run with a default constellation for a given day,” Erbes explained. “They’ll run that scenario hundreds or thousands of times and never need to change it because they’re testing parts of the receiver that don’t care a whole lot about the specifics of what’s happening.”

Missions, by contrast, are time- and location-specific. Planners need to know which satellites will be overhead at an exact time and place. “When you’re doing real day mission planning, the big problem isn’t so much how to generate a signal, it’s how to find out what’s happening today.”

Increasing Accuracy Requirements

Like those for receivers, accuracy requirements for simulators are increasing to match those of emerging applications. “Everyone’s chasing the goal of getting smaller, faster, and more accurate systems,” said Thomas. “We do real-time simulators, and they want a smaller and smaller delay from when you input the trajectory to when you get the output. Luckily, we’re able to keep up on the hardware side as well, because much of our processing is done using software.”

As accuracy requirements rise, “Real-world testing has an incredibly important role to play,” said Holbrow. Additionally, as resilience testing places increasing demands on test equipment, Spirent Communications now supports “a multitude of vulnerability and corresponding mitigation/prevention test cases” to deal with jamming, spoofing, cyber-attack and CRPA

CAST Navigation’s simulators meet or exceed accuracy requirements, Clark said. “We have pseudo-range accuracy down to a millimeter, our phase coherence doesn’t wander, and we’re able to achieve 2.5 ps to 3 ps synchronization coherence during multi-element, phased-array antenna simulations. We see our customers interested in a higher performing simulator, and that is our commitment.”

Pielmeier had a different perspective on this: “We saw no increase in the required accuracy, as the typical requested accuracies are far beyond the real accuracy of the signals anyway.”

Recent Success Stories

Racelogic has developed a system to replace or augment GPS in tunnels, which often pass over each other or match the routes of surface streets. “We’ve been talking to many cities around the world that are building new tunnels,” said Thomas. “It requires installing repeaters every 30 meters along each tunnel and software that runs on a server and seamlessly updates your position every 30 meters.”

Clark pointed out that CAST Navigation’s “bread-and-butter” for the past few years has been “larger systems that can drive phased array antennas, along with inertial units, and full high-dynamic aircraft, in real-time environments.” He added that “the smaller systems, which used to be popular, have mostly gone by the wayside.”

As a recent success, Holbrow cited Spirent Communications’ release of a Xona simulator, in partnership with Xona Space Systems, as well as the addition of “many realism-related capabilities, including simulating the vibration and temperature effects of inertial systems;” a cloud-based software application called Foresight that enables users to understand the GNSS coverage they would expect at a particular time, location and trajectory based upon accurate 3D scenes; and a simulation test solution for the Galileo Open Service Navigation Message Authentication (OSNMA) mechanism. Finally, he stressed Spirent’s increasing support for automation.

Pielmeier cited the Galileo second generation Test User Receiver contract that IFEN received from the European Space Agency as its most important recent success. “Within this contract, the NCS NOVA+ simulator as RF test tool will be upgraded to full G2G signal generation capability. The new already implemented G2G signals enable shorter time to first fix (TTFF) and improved acquisition performance but also higher updates rates (e.g., for PPP-RTK). Through the end of the year, the G2G signal will be fully implemented in our RF simulator, including the next generation of advanced authentication solutions.”

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at or 541-543-0525.