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Expert Advice: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

January 1, 2012  - By
Headshot: David Last and Sally Basker

Headshot: David Last and Sally Basker

David Last and Sally Basker

Across transportation, agriculture, industry, commerce, and finance, GPS has replaced earlier technologies, opened up innovative applications, and led to new ways of doing old things. GPS now plays a key role in the critical infrastructures of all industrialized nations, from the most sophisticated telecommunications system to the production of a simple loaf of bread.

Wheat is the world’s second staple food, and bread its main product. Bakers have been around for 30,000 years. GPS, among its manifold other duties, now also helps bring us our breakfast toast and midday sandwich.

British farmers sow 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of wheat per year, harvest 8 tonnes per hectare (3.6 U.S. tons per acre) and sell it at £150 a tonne ($214 per U.S. ton), making their harvest worth £2.5 billion ($3.9 billion). Nearly a billion pounds-worth ($1.6 billion) goes to make bread.

We use Britain as an example because we are British, but this same truth holds, at much grander scale, when you consider the United States, Russia, and many other European nations.

A vital value chain wends its way from farm to mill to bakery to store to home: in the UK, 99 percent of households buy bread, 99 percent of which is made in this country, 80 percent of it from domestic flour. This relatively closed value chain lets us see how GPS is used, and that its loss would increase the price of a loaf and translate into inflation.

GPS serves as the basis of the precision agriculture, cutting fuel costs and enabling selective and variable rate optimized application of fertilizers. It lets farmers use less manpower, reduces soil compaction, and even minimizes operator fatigue. Farmers now spend much more time on yield monitoring and within-paddock zone management than leaning on gates chewing straws. Though the capital cost of precision agriculture is high, the annual benefits are comparable with the investment. Losing GPS-based precision agriculture would increase the price of bread by at least 2 percent.

Transport logistics is the glue that joins our value chain together. GPS in fleet management optimizes routings, accelerates dispatching, prevents theft, improves driver behavior, and delivers fuel efficiencies. Loss of GPS in the transport links in our chain would increase fuel costs alone by 13 percent.

On top of all this, GPS is the ultimate source of precision timing supporting telecommunications links at every stage of the value chain, from wheat futures trading and banking transactions to voice, data, and Internet traffic.

The sudden loss of GPS in farming, transportation, communications, business management, and retail distribution, would substantially raise the price of bread, hit every household, and impact the national economy.

What applies to a traditional  and at first glance low-technology product like bread applies across the board. The recent report on GNSS vulnerabilities by the Royal Academy of Engineering says that GPS and other satellite navigation services have applications so pervasive that there is now a real threat to global security if the systems should fail — or be interfered with. The signals are used by almost every industry: rail, road, aviation, space, maritime, agriculture, energy, surveying, construction, law enforcement and communications.

Dependence on GNSS connects many otherwise independent services into a so-called accidental system — with a single point of failure, the satellite signal. And a satellite signal, says the report, is a weak foundation for important services, since it can fail in dozens of ways.

GPS is no longer the only GNSS, of course, as many nations, recognizing its political and economic value, have developed their own systems, and augmentations to enhance accuracy and integrity. Over the next few years, the number of navigation satellites may approach 150. This will help reduce vulnerability to the loss of GPS and so will be a benefit in the short term.

But the long term is a very different matter. All these systems now use, or shortly will use, essentially the same technology. And, crucially, the same radio frequency bands.

In those frequency bands, GNSS is threatened by rising levels of radio interference. This threat has several strands that are being recognized separately and handled individually, but which taken together will determine the future of GNSS.

We face a Triple Whammy!

The First Threat

The first component of the Triple Whammy comes from the new satellite systems themselves. Each satellite transmitting in the GPS frequency band increases the noise level there. Satellite navigation receivers must find and lock onto the extremely weak signal that reaches the Earth, digging it out from the background noise of the cosmos. And the other GPS satellites add to the noise level.

Günther Hein of the European Space Agency shows this remarkable diagram (Figure 1): as the number of systems increases and the number of satellites heads for that 150, up rises the noise they make, the blue-green line. More than about 70 of them, and satellite noise exceeds the cosmic noise floor in red and becomes the main source of noise. The more satellites, the worse the reception as GNSS interferes with itself. Too many satellites, and you’d pick up none at all! The first threat of the triple whammy is self-inflicted.

Chart: David Last and Sally Basker

Chart: David Last and Sally Basker

Figure 1. The first threat of the Triple Whammy: new satellite systems. Source: Günther Hein.

The Second Threat

Conflicts between nations as their new GNSSs compete for radio spectrum also threaten GNSS viability.

The frequency bands available to satellite navigation are essentially L2, L5, and the principal one we use currently, L1. On L1, the European Galileo system and the Chinese Compass system occupy the same areas. Now, that’s very desirable if the two systems are to share receivers. But they also compete for that spectrum, and there is conflict between Compass and Galileo.

This battle for spectrum is a highly complex engineering problem. But chiefly, the spectrum wars are political, even emotional.

Chinese satellites fly across American skies broadcasting signals that interfere with European receivers. Spectrum wars have everything to do with relationships between nations and little to do with battles between engineers. They are developing into a classic tragedy of the commons: a situation in which self-interest determines how a limited resource — here the radio spectrum — is to be shared in a regime in which regulation is weak. The International Telecommunication Union sets standards and registers claims. The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs seeks to mediate. But neither is a policeman; sovereign governments may sometimes be penniless, but they are very powerful.

The second threat of the Triple Whammy is also self-inflicted.

The Third Threat

Communications systems compete with GNSS for spectrum: witness the current LightSquared case of a powerful new broadband system. For existing receivers, including those in government systems and aviation, it seems there is no fix for its devastating interference. LightSquared is driven by rich and powerful commercial forces; it could well win this fight.

Communication technologies will continue to press upon the satellite navigation spectrum. LightSquared will likely erode spectrum gaps between communications and navigation services, the so-called guard bands.

Satellite navigation has become highly political. The intense use of GNSS across our economies makes them vulnerable. GNSS is threatened by a Triple Whammy, by jamming, and by spoofing. These increase the risks to our security and our economies, both in probability and impact. The solution of detecting jammers and making ownership illegal will help with local problems in local areas. But the Triple Whammy threats are not local; they are national and international, world-wide.

Today’s spectrum wars affect us all. That the loss of GPS would increase the price of a loaf — the very trigger for the French Revolution — brings this down to earth.

These are not technical issues, they determine the price of our food! They constitute a real and present danger to our societies — down to the mundane yet very real level of our daily bread.

David Last is a past-president of the Royal Institute of Navigation, a consultant and expert witness on radio-navigation and communications systems to companies, governmental and international organizations, and criminal investigators.

Sally Basker, former director of research and radionavigation at the General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland, has opened Traxis Ltd: management, business, and technology advice with expertise in navigation service provision. See

This article is adapted from a presentation at the European Navigation Conference, London, November 2011. A longer version of the talk appears in the Royal institute of Navigation News.