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Faux signals for real results: Spirent Communications / Spirent Federal Systems

August 29, 2023  - By

An exclusive interview with Mark Holbrow, VP of Product Development, Spirent Communications and Roger Hart, Sr. Director of Engineering, Spirent Federal Systems. For more exclusive interviews from this cover story, click here.

What are your roles?

MH: Our business is based in the UK. I am responsible for the vision and direction of the Technology portfolio required by Spirent’s Positioning Technology business unit.

RH: I am responsible for the U.S. add-on components to the simulator, the restricted signals, and support for the U.S. government labs and contractors.

How have the need for simulation or the requirements for it changed in the past five years, with the completion of the BeiDou and Galileo GNSS constellations, the rise in jamming and spoofing threats, the sharp increase in corrections services, and the advent of new LEO-based PNT services?

MH: I would say that the need for thorough and comprehensive testing has never been greater. That need is being driven on multiple fronts due to the understandable pressure on PNT systems needing to deliver enhanced accuracy, reliability and resilience, in the presence of emerging threat vectors and an expanding application space that’s utilizing ever more complex combinations of new and enhanced signals and sensors of opportunity. Underpinning Spirent’s leadership in ensuring the test needs for this evolving, challenging and increasingly diverse market are its team, its technology and its partners. That team is well-established, dedicated and highly experienced — their sole focus is designing, manufacturing and supporting PNT test solutions. The technology focuses around our pioneering dedicated SDR hardware platform and software simulation engine, which allied provide performance, scalability and flexibility, within an open accessible architecture. In addition, close collaboration with our selected partners ensures the opportunity to support and integrate new and emerging PNT technologies through their tools, applications and hardware.

You mention the advent of LEO. A key reason why Spirent was first to market and successfully supported an early LEO + GNSS receiver test-bed (through close and collaboration with Xona and NovAtel) was driven by team, technology and partners.

Two other important areas that have definitely continued to grow and evolve in importance and priority have to be increased realism and test automation. Both are areas in which Spirent continues to prioritize and invest R&D dollars.

Spirent’s integrated, software-defined wavefront simulation system for a 5-element controlled reception pattern antenna (CRPA). Spirent solutions support 16+ antenna elements. (Image: Spirent)

Spirent’s integrated, software-defined wavefront simulation system for a 5-element controlled reception pattern antenna (CRPA). Spirent solutions support 16+ antenna elements. (Image: Spirent)

With all these additional signals, is it still a single simulator or do you have to somehow split it up into different modules?

MH: Good point. Again, a key element with the Spirent solution is that it is very scaleabale and flexible. Spirent has a generic SDR that can be re-purposed to simulate whatever signals are required. That way, we can compile different signals from either one radio or multiple radios coming from the same system. Together with being able to bring in multiple chassis to gradually grow the simulation solution, while also maintaining for each of those signals the fidelity, channel count, and accuracy that customers demand.

Including every signal currently available?

MH: Absolutely, sir. In fact, signals that are still on the drawing board as well. We 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. So, in addition to using that architecture to generate the signals, we allow customers to experiment with it themselves. That’s certainly accelerated over these last five years, and there’s no sign of it stopping. We’re currently working with customers and partners all over the globe who are developing both brand new and emerging PNT systems, whilst also providing all the vital simulation tools to aid the R&D of existing and planned SIS evolutions.

RH: The increasing number of signals that we can support multiplies the permutations and combinations of test cases that users can do. There is a lot of emphasis also on the user interface side of things, so that from one interface you can also easily control all these interfaces with third-party tools, because proliferation of signals produces a huge possible test volume.

What are the specific challenges in realistically simulating new LEO-based signals and any new services being developed for which you don’t have any live sky signals to record yet, only ICDs and other documents?

MH: Again, great question. The key reason Spirent excels in this arena is that the core simulation engine and SDR are agnostic of the constellation and signal type that’s being generated. 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.

The other area that becomes very important is that if we do not have sight of the ICD, we can enable customers to use our tools to readily populate elements of that ICD themselves. That way, the best of both worlds is achieved, i.e. a turnkey SIS solution, or we can just enable the customer to do it themselves.

Are accuracy requirements or any other requirements for simulation increasing to enable emerging applications?

MH: They are. Both current and emerging test needs are continuing to drive the need for enhanced simulation realism. Always a tough nut to crack, but our hard-won experience and expertise, allied with continuing adoption of latest-generation technology, is allowing us to take some significant strides forward. Real-world testing has an incredibly important role to play and that’s why at Spirent we continue to invest in and develop the GSS6450 Record & Playback System (RPS). However, we are also on that quest for the ‘Holy Grail’ that has all the well understood and necessary advantages of lab-based testing but with the simulation environment being as true to the real world as possible.

A German Armed Forces test center, WTD-61, recently used Spirent's new Field Simulator to conclusively demonstrate the susceptibility of some UAS to spoofing. (Image: Spirent)

A German Armed Forces test center, WTD-61, recently used Spirent’s new Field Simulator to conclusively demonstrate the susceptibility of some UAS to spoofing. (Image: Spirent)

A further area where both current and emerging test needs are demanding more and more from the test environment is resilience testing. Spirent now supports a multitude of vulnerability and corresponding mitigation/prevention test cases. Those test cases become increasingly complex as multiple combinations of the threat/mitigation surface evolve — including jamming, spoofing, cyber-attack and CRPA.

Many of these test cases are driving the state of the art and, especially in the case of CRPA testing, Spirent’s purpose-designed SDR comes into its own. Technology bakeoffs and corresponding customer adoption have shown that only through the use of that dedicated purpose-built technology, the simulator test bed can deliver the necessary carrier and code phase stability, very low levels of uncorrelated noise across antenna elements and high J/S that is demanded.

Again, with respect to flexibility, we also support ways to let customers generate their own IQ data. That data can be streamed into the Spirent simulator and combined sympathetically and coherently with the signals generated inside the platform. So, you can layer new signals on existing ones, or introduce a completely new dedicated IQ stream.Finally, hardware-in-the -loop (HIL) testing requirements continue to be a crucial aspect in test coverage. Whether that application is automotive, projectiles or autonomous vehicles, the need for lower latency and higher 6DOF sampling to capture as many trajectory nuances as possible continues to grow. Spirent’s 2KHz system achieves very high iteration rates (SIR) and <2msec latency.

What are the key differences between your simulators for use in the lab and those for use in the field? I assume that the latter are lighter, smaller, and less power hungry. Do they use modules so that users can pick the ones they need for a particular test?

MH: We do support in-the-field test use cases. Spirent has record-and-replay (RPS) systems to take soundings in a wide-band RF environment, record them, then bring them back into the lab for replay. They are sized to fit into a backpack, battery-powered, accessible, and easy to use.

Recently, we have also taken some of our signal generator IP and been able to create a smaller form factor portable simulator for outside use. Its footprint is considerably smaller than that of one of our lab-based simulators. It’s primarily a mechanism for testing the resilience in the field of devices under test. Armed with a Spirent simulator and the appropriate transmit licenses, a customer can put their DUT through an array of vulnerability test cases in a live real-world environment.

You mentioned licenses. As far as jamming, specifically, and maybe spoofing, I presume that you’ll need a license for a specific time and place and that you will have to be far away from, say, an airport.

Absolutely. Right. The details will vary depending on the jurisdiction, but you will need a license to transmit. And, as you rightly say, often those places will be very remote so as not to interfere with the public. We’ve had instances where we’ll work with a customer who has those appropriate licenses and then we can provide this equipment for them to be able to put it through a battery of tests.

You generate the spoofing in your simulator, of course. Do you also generate the jamming inside the same box or from a separate jammer nearby?

It could be either. We can use our simulators to generate internally wide range of interference signals supporting a wide bandwidth, high max o/p power and large dynamic range. This is especially important in instances of CRPA testing, in which it is vital to accurately reproducing a jamming wavefront commensurate with the arrival angle and delay incident at each antenna element. Correspondingly, we support turn-key solutions to connect, control and integrate 3rd party external signal generators into the test scenario.

Are you at liberty to describe any recent success stories?

We have a Xona simulator. So, this is back on the topic of LEO. We’ve recently released that in partnership with Xona. We are also working closely with Hexagon. All those things I mentioned earlier about enabling the customer to use the flexible features that we have, that is where it came into its own. That’s certainly a significant recent success.

We’re continuing to add many realism-related capabilities, including simulating the vibration and temperature effects of inertial systems. Working with a Swiss partner called Space PNT, we’ve recently introduced another LEO-based product, called SimORBIT. That tool enables us to generate incredibly representative and accurate LEO orbits that also include gravitational effects based upon the SV size. We recently introduced a new software tool to support “GNSS Assurance” requirements.

We have a newly patented cloud-based software application called GNSS Foresight that enables users to understand the GNSS coverage they would expect during a particular time, date location and trajectory inclusive of the 3D environment they would be experiencing. We continue to evolve the tool to support real-time operation to enable it to deliver aiding content to appropriately equipped systems.

We continue to be able to support more and more automation. Automation has always been important, but with ever increasing demands of test asset utilization and in a post-pandemic world of remote working, it’s more important than ever right now. The number of test cases and corner cases required and the amount of equipment, coverage, and efficiency required, which was being demanded by using our kit means that automation is vital. So, we’ve introduced several new automation tools to build up on top of our current SimREMOTE interface.

Spirent has also developed a simulation test solution for the Galileo Open Service Navigation Message Authentication (OSNMA) mechanism. SimOSNMA is designed to work with Spirent’s GNSS simulation platforms to test OSNMA signal conformance, which will bring new levels of robustness for both civilian and commercial GNSS uses. SimOSNMA provides developers with vital new simulation tools to test for OSNMA, the security protocol that enables GNSS receivers to verify the authenticity of signals distributed from the Galileo satellite constellation. Designed to combat spoofing, OSNMA ensures that the data received is authentic and has not been modified in any way. It is currently completing the test phase before its formal launch, and SimOSNMA enables developers to simulate and test OSNMA signals and features, allowing GNSS receiver manufacturers and application developers to accelerate and assure development programs.

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.