Expert Advice: NDGPS Cut-Off Premature

October 1, 2007  - By
Image: GPS World

By Charles R. Trimble

As we look forward in the modernization of GPS, and we’re looking at the spectrum of other systems that are coming online, GPS today has fundamentally the preeminent position in terms of positioning and navigation. If we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot in the transition from the GPS we have today to GPS III, which is 10 years out, GPS will probably remain the fundamental standard, because the only way non-military uses of these additional systems will get early use is by receiver manufacturers putting in dual-reception capability and using the new satellites as they go up, fundamentally as additional ranging signal augmentations. It’s the only way you get early use out of getting a few satellites in the sky.

A lot of whether GPS will retain its standard position has to do with worldwide confidence in the system. We’ve done a pretty good job of maintaining a level playing field for everyone in the world with regard to GPS. There haven’t been the problems that were experienced with Loran systems which were occasionally turned off, creating consternation in Europe. But the possibility, currently under consideration, of actually dropping an important accuracy augmentation element of GPS — the Nationwide Differential GPS (NDGPS) — before alternatives are available would certainly undermine worldwide confidence in the U.S. commitment to continuing to provide service equal to or better than what is already there.

The key issue here: You can have all the paper designs in the world you want, but fundamentally the question is once you have a given level of capability, how well is that maintained — and is it improved over time?

With all the machinations that have gone on, the United States has done a pretty good job. It basically delivers a set of signals that are better than promised. The system, especially with its augmentations, is clearly better today than it was 10 years ago.

Now, the U.S. from a policy standpoint does need to transition from where we are to GPS III. We simply need to do it in a wise manner. The problem that I see with zeroing out the budget for NDGPS is that we save very little money — about $10 million a year to maintain the system. For any accountancy firm, this would fall below the line of relevance in the budget. And the effect, in undermining international confidence in GPS and in direct costs to state and local governments, would far outweigh any such savings.

Until we have something in GPS III that provides accuracies in the half-meter range, which is what’s required for civil Geographic Information Systems (GIS) work, it would be foolish to turn NDGPS off. We would be degrading a system without any real alternative.

Furthermore, you’re probably going to cost state and local and federal governments, who use NDGPS extensively for local mapping, far more than $10 million by turning the system off.

I believe the main commercial use of NDGPS, outside of the GIS realm, is precision agriculture. The arguments to put it in originally were to provide the people on the interior of our continent the same sort of services that the coastal regions are provided. The issue we have is we don’t have a strong vocal constituency, and frankly state and local governments can’t provide much of a hue and cry for degradation of service.

And losing confidence, undermining international confidence in the U.S. to maintain a stable system, is not a party to the table, either.

Granted, international users do not actually use NDGPS itself. But they have invested the money to put in comparable base stations in their countries. For the U.S. to discontinue NDGPS undermines and brings into question whether their investment was a good investment — and whether, as an international user, you can comfortable continue to rely on GPS.

It’s a confidence issue. There is no economic damage to foreign users. But it’s a perception of undermining GPS credibility across the globe if we pull back support from a system that just a few years ago we deemed to be important and almost essential.

Some precision ag and other potential NDGPS users have switched over to WAAS, the Wide Area Augmentation System. There’s no question that WAAS is a good system, but you’re not going to get below a couple of meters, and you’re certainly not going to be able to farm above buried water tape. There’s clearly a market and I believe it’s part of the mix. It turns out it’s really tough to get at the 20-centimeter accuracy level over large distances, and WAAS will not give you that.

At some point in our transition — I don’t know whether it’s five years from now or 10 years from now — the world is going to be a different place in terms of satellite services and the level of satellite services. It may very well be at some point in the future, this space of 20–50 centimeter accuracy can be very well delivered by a private service (without interference in the RF spectrum), or let’s just say, can be delivered by satellite.

At that time, when there are truly other alternatives, I’m not going to be beating my shoe on the desk to maintain a legacy system. The issue in this whole positioning and navigation field is that as people are starting to get economic value out of information, introducing hiccoughs into the user stream of productivity enhancement is not a good thing.

We say that until there is a viable alternative for the 20–50 centimeter space, we ought to continue sending out the signals. Once there is a viable alternative, then you can certainly transition; look at the cost of transition, and you will probably transition.

But it turns out this is a relatively cheap way of providing information in this space and, frankly, we’re a long ways away from using GPS in automated systems that are directly related to safety of life. To get that, you have to play the game that the FAA plays, and worry about seven nines of reliability [99.9999999 percent]. GPS in its augmentation is probably at the one to two nine level. But as the usage increases, by having multiple augmentation systems and using them, there is no reason that reliability can’t be increased.

Fundamentally, the word to government is it’s premature to shut off the lights. It may be the right decision at some point in the future, but I think it would cause a lot more problems than the $10 million it would save if it’s done now.

CHARLES R. TRIMBLE is chairman of the U.S. GPS Industry Council.

This article is tagged with , , and posted in GNSS, Opinions, Transportation