Faux signals for real results: Safran Federal Systems

August 21, 2023  - By

An exclusive interview with Tim Erbes, Technical Director, Safran Federal Systems (formerly Orolia Defense & Security). For more exclusive interviews from this cover story, click here.

What are currently the key challenges for simulation?

One of our big challenges is determining what performance requirements are necessary for our users. Often, they can’t determine what the specs need to be. All they know is that they need it to work. “I need this receiver from one company, this IMU from another company, and the simulator I got from you guys to work together and I need the performance to match reality.” It can be very challenging to say, “What are the requirements for the simulator? How accurate does it need to be? What types of things matter in this integration?”

Often, we’re left trying to figure that out. So, that’s an interesting, maybe unexpected challenge. It’s easy to look at the datasheet and see what some specs are, but it’s a much harder thing to say, “Well, what do you need the specs to be?” So, we’ve been working with our customers to try to nail down some of those specs, particularly with Wavefront. We have some specs on such things as phase alignment and phase stability. But how do you translate that into something like “Well, I just want the CRPA to work the same in the lab as it does in the real world?” There’s not a direct, easy way to do that. We’re in the middle of trying to figure that out. That’s definitely one of our challenges.

What about the increase in jamming and spoofing threats?

In the last five years, we’ve seen a lot more open talk about jamming and spoofing in the world. The receiver manufacturers must think about this a lot more. What’s interesting from a simulator point of view is that this is not actually new for us. We have the advantage that we’ve been designing to program requirements for years and they have included jamming and spoofing for years. So, in a way, simulation is ahead of this state of the world. Jamming and spoofing are not new or hard ideas for us. In fact, spoofing is similar to simulation. So, we already know how to do that.

Image: Safran Federal Systems (formerly Orolia Defense & Security)

Image: Safran Federal Systems (formerly Orolia Defense & Security)

However, jamming and spoofing are new to programs and integration labs. So, there might be platforms where they’re now testing against jamming or spoofing requirements where in the past, maybe they didn’t do that. They certainly can use our simulators to help them do that. However, we’re not seeing a lot of new requirements coming to us saying we need new jamming or spoofing capabilities, because we already have them. Luckily, we are future oriented regarding the jamming and spoofing requirements, so those really haven’t been a challenge for us yet.

That can always change, right? 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. As of right now, however, we aren’t really seeing that. So, luckily, we’re prepared for that. As for the industry as a whole, there has definitely been a big movement in the last few years to understand the effects of jamming and spoofing. Simulation is a big part of that.

What about the completion of the BeiDou and Galileo constellations?

For a long time, we simulated four constellations. Then that began to get fuzzy. Do you consider SBAS a constellation or is that just an augmentation? Do you count EGNOS and other supplemental constellations for the other constellations? What about NavIC and QZSS? Before you know it, you start to lose track of exactly how many you have. We just released our 8th constellation, Xona.We’re going to be demonstrating it at JNC.

Tell me more about that.

We are trying to have all the constellations and that can be a fuzzy definition. Does that mean all that are up there right now or all that will be up there in the future? We’re trying to be forward looking and add everything that is going to be up there or might be up there so that lab users can develop and test. Multi-constellation simulation is a particularly challenging problem for groups that don’t have simulators. If you’re just doing research on, say, GPS, and want a new code, you might be able to do that in a lab on your own. But as soon as you say, “I want to do research on whether this LEO constellation helps navigation on a receiver that also uses Galileo and GPS,” suddenly, your research requires a full multi-constellation simulation.
There are two choices. One is to have a simulator do the constellations that already exist, and then you have some research to add constellations. That can be very challenging, especially with time alignment and things like that. The other is to have a simulator that can do all the constellations. That would be the easy choice, right? That presents a problem with such things as LEO navigation being on the rise and these constellations that are just emerging, that are still not even fully defined.

So, we’re trying to build those into our simulation products, to help researchers and decision makers determine whether these will be useful features to add to their receivers or their systems. 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 ICD, we’re only a couple of months away from a first draft implementation of that new signal. Then we iterate. There used to always be a government-driven, multi-year program to develop an ICD. Now, we have this new concept of the signal manufacturers. We’re seeing private companies release signal specs. That’s a very different way of creating a signal in a constellation. So, sometimes you don’t get much time between when the ICD is available and when simulator users want to use that constellation. Having a software-defined architecture really helps us move quickly. We can add such things as Xona very fast.

Xona told me a couple of days ago that they will soon put out an ICD. What’s the difference between actual signals that you can record and play versus something that’s only on paper?

That’s a great point. Probably many people don’t realize, when they first look at this, that what’s in the ICD and what’s on live sky are sometimes very different. Is the simulator supposed to match live sky? 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’s been released. Space Systems Command/Military Communications & Position, Navigation, & Timing (MCPNT) controls the features and releases them incrementally. We’re constantly having to make changes to the simulator to match those releases. The same is true for the other ICDs. At the Institute of Navigation Joint Navigation Conference (JNC), we will demonstrate an expanded PRN. I think this showed up in the ICD a couple of years ago, but it’s not used by any users yet. Some of the receiver manufacturers are starting to look at using PRNs beyond 32. So, we’re adding that to the simulator. This has already happened for BeiDou as well. I think their ICD goes up to more than 60 satellites. It’s an ever-changing race. The ICDs are constantly being updated and we’re trying to update the simulator.

Image: Safran Federal Systems (formerly Orolia Defense & Security)

Image: Safran Federal Systems (formerly Orolia Defense & Security)

Meanwhile, live sky is many years behind the paper, right? This creates an interesting challenge: when you design a system, are you designing it for today or for the future? We have users in both groups. We have users that only care about what is happening today, because they need a model. Maybe you want to model a specific mission and you want to make sure that everything’s going to go properly. Or maybe you’re designing a system that you want to release in three or four years, and you want to make sure that it’s going to work with the state of the system then.

A big challenge is to make sure that we’re keeping pace with all these ICDs. There are more constellations than ever and the technology makes it easier to change signal architectures. We’re seeing signals change faster than we’ve ever seen them change before. We go to conferences and hear about such things as on-orbit reprogramming and signals that might even change specs while they’re being transmitted. Maybe they don’t even have to have a fixed bandwidth or fixed bit rate. We’re going to start talking about signals that can reprogram on the fly. That’s going to make simulation more and more challenging. The technology exists to do this.

Software-defined waveforms is a very logical step. In the software world, we have this concept of version nightmare. When you have 20 different pieces of software that are interdependent, it can get very challenging. We’re going to start to see that in simulators. We’re going to see, “Hey, what version of navigation authentication are you using? We updated it six months ago. Are you using the new one or the old one? Which one should we use?” Well, it depends on what your receiver is using. It’s going to be interesting and challenging to keep all this straight in the next few years as things evolve. Certainly, however, our goal is to be there for all of it and to be as fast and as forward thinking as we can for our customers. That means that we also need to know what our customers need. So, we’re always looking for feedback and requests, what challenges our customers face and we’re responding to those requests.

Tell me more about the difference between simulators used by receiver manufacturers in their labs as they’re tweaking receivers or developing new ones vs. simulators used for mission planning.

The simulators are the same, but they’re used in very different ways. In most lab simulation, what the constellation looks like that day doesn’t matter very much. They can just run with a default constellation for a given day. 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.

Whereas missions are time- and location-specific.

Yeah, exactly. They want to know which satellites will be overhead at an exact time and place. It’s not so much a problem anymore, but there used to be certain days and times when you would not get enough satellites in view, or you might have very bad dilution of precision, and your mission might actually fail. We’re past those days. There are now enough satellites up there. Most receivers will navigate within their specs most of the time in most places. However, for critical missions, such as military operations or rocket launches, you might not want to just assume that any day is a good day. So, if you’re about to launch a rocket, you might want to check. “What does the constellation look like right now?” The challenges that brings is that simulators have a default constellation, but the constellations are constantly changing.

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. That’s really the nature of the problem because what’s out there today is different from what was happening yesterday or what will happen tomorrow. You might have unhealthy satellites. You need to know that if you want to model them. It becomes a big challenge to get all the right data into the simulator. Once all that data is in there, then it’s the same as any other simulation.

Are there good sources for current data on GLONASS, BeiDou and Galileo?

Image: Safran Federal Systems (formerly Orolia Defense & Security)

Image: Safran Federal Systems (formerly Orolia Defense & Security)

There are a couple of websites that provide information about where the satellites currently are. However, we’ve found that each one of those sites has its own challenges. Some are maybe 30 minutes out of date, which is pretty good, but puts the satellites in slightly different spots. Some of those sites only support some of the constellations. We’re talking about multiple countries and they don’t all agree on how this should be done. So, there’s not a single point that you can visit to get all the satellite data. There are a couple of companies that try to fix this. U-blox has AssistNow; Qualcomm has an assist for its cellular receivers; Trimble, NovAtel, and a couple of other companies have their error correction services to which you can subscribe to get some of that data.

If you want real-time up-to-date ephemeris for all the constellations, that is challenging. There are one or two options we have found that seem to work, but they each have their disadvantages. Maybe they don’t have all the satellites. Again, we’re talking about versioning issues. So, if you’ve designed your system with a certain version of an ICD and they’ve added more satellites since, those new SVs maybe aren’t so important for your users, so you don’t publish them. Other users want those satellites. So, we see versioning issues in these data streams. For example, we use the CORS network to get a lot of GPS data but that whole network, as far as I know, is only running the legacy data. As far as I know, no network is distributing the L1C modernized data that we will need at some point. So, as we launch new signals and constellations, we need the networks to provide this new data.

What are some other challenges?

For us, being a software-defined simulator on a platform dependent on software-defined radio (SDR), we’re constantly looking at what’s changing in the SDR technology community. There’s always some interesting stuff happening there that we try to incorporate. We don’t have any big announcements this year, as far as new architectures or anything like that. However, the SDR community is evolving. It’s still a rather new industry. A few years ago, we were an early adopter of SDR technology for mass deployment. Now, we’re seeing some more mature SDRs starting to push such things as channel count and coherency. We will probably take advantage of that in the future.

The other interesting thing technology-wise is that we’re also a GPU-dependent technology. So, as the GPU industry continues to evolve and makes bigger and faster GPUs, we get a relatively low-cost way to upgrade. We don’t have to do a lot of R&D to upgrade to a new GPU. For our users that means that the number of signals they can generate on their simulators is always increasing even using the same hardware from one generation to the next. Our first simulator did 75 signals; the next version did 150. We could build a system that did more than 1,000 signals, but our users don’t need it.

I assume that the growth curve for GPUs is steeper than that for signals.

I think that you’re right about that. I’m sure glad they do, because then something like Xona shows up and we don’t have to rearchitect our system to generate 300 signals, right? At JNC we will show expanded PRN, 300 Xona satellites in the constellation, and a 10 fold improvement on Wavefront performance specs.. We will continue to build simulators that meet our customers’ requirements. Besides GPUs, a lot of the technology involves software R&D and signals. The stuff that we do digitally inside of our system that allows us to do things like extremely precise phase alignment on Wavefront, for example. We spent a lot of time developing that stuff.

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 mluccio@northcoastmedia.net or 541-543-0525.