The Hits and the Misses

November 29, 2011  - By
Image: GPS World

GNSS Design & Test Newsletter, November 2011

LONDON — Technical conferences usually feature hits: advances in technology, new form factors, improved signal processing. But the opening day of the European Navigation Conference in London has dwelt instead on misses: vulnerabilities, threats, weaknesses that leave GNSS increasingly open to attack and disruption. Gaps in our armor, with scant help in sight.

The first gloomy note sounded during the opening plenary, usually replete with optimistic constellation updates. Colin Beatty, president of the hosting Royal Institute of Navigation (RIN), noted the first signs of increasing sunspot activity, heralding the oncoming solar maximum, that have caused instances of several minutes of GPS outage at a time around Singapore. Eleven years ago, he remembered, the last solar maximum created outages of four hours daily over an extended period in a Brazilian off-shore drilling area. The current cycle has only just begun.

This and other types of interference were repeatedly mentioned — LightSquared among them, though not discussed at length — by both speakers and the audience, in questions and comments. Andy Norris, RIN vice-president and conference chair, asked “Why do the governments of this world not seem to be taking seriously the fact of GNSS vulnerability?”

A representative of the Ireland Lighthouse Authority stated that “The implications of denial of service become more serious with each passing year,” in the sphere of marine navigation, although clearly the remark applies in a much broader, in fact universal context. “Ships are larger, more valuable, they move faster, with smaller crews, and are increasingly reliant on a sole source of positioning and navigation — GPS.”

When GPS aboard ships was first introduced for navigation, Rein van Gooswilligen of the European Union Group of Institutes of Navigation recalled, it met with some resistance. If you showed a captain a laptop with GPS navigation, they might look at it for five or 10 minutes at a time. Now they are looking exclusively at it, without any supplemental means of navigation, including visual sighting — and other onboard systems have been discontinued.

An U.S. Navy officer stated that the service is taking a hard, critical look at reliance on GPS, and emphasized the critical timing aspect as well as navigation. The Navy is reconsidering optical navigation including automated optical — and is very interested in a modernized Loran, although the old Loran-C ahs been done away with in the United States.

“What are we doing wrong or failing to do,” posed Andy Norris again, “ to get our message on vulnerability across to politicians and other key decision-makers?”

During a coffee break, I got an advance look at possible counter to vulnerability, an integrated eLoran and GPS receiver, smaller than a deck of cards, from Roke Manor Research Ltd. This has great potential for many GNSS-challenged and/or –disrupted environments, and a product should be released soon. That was the one hit of the day.

Presentations resumed with the largest conference room packed to overflowing for the first of several sessions on interference and jamming. “Spectrum Wars — Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” was David Last’s chosen title, a paper co-written with Sally Basker, who provided the economic analysis, and one I hope to present in the January issue of GPS World magazine. He calculated the impact on a low-technology product such as bread of the unavailability of high-tech GPS for precision agriculture, transport, and telecoms at every stage of the value chain to show just how pervasive and real a threat to global security it would be if such systems fail or are made to fail. “A dependence on GPS connects many disparate sectors.”

Last presented the “triple whammy” of denial:

  • Each new satellite in the GPS frequency band also increases the noise level.
  • GNSS nations compete for spectrum.
  • Communication systems compete with GNSS for spectrum.

And this is not even getting to unintentional RF interference, intentional jamming, and spoofing, he pointed out.

Intensely political spectrum wars increase GNSS vulnerability, he concluded, and ominously reminded us that the trigger of the French Revolution was . . . an increase in the price of a loaf of bread.

Durk Van Willigen of Reelektronika began the next talk by stating, “My presentation won’t make you very happy.” He allowed as how the LightSquared battle was fascinating to observe — especially by non-U.S. countries — and should have been expected. There will be more of them, he said.

“Once upon a time, spectrum was like oil and gas: we had more than we needed.” No more. There’s “No Escape!” he warned, and he pointed out that, on a business basis, GPS and other GNSS spectrum use is free (paid through taxes), while telecommunications companies must pay for spectrum licenses. “As more spectrum will be needed for communication, the pressure on GNSS spectrum is enormous and will increase. Reducing this financial imbalance,” he proposed, “makes GNSS politically more convincing in its spectrum claims.”

“All the conditions for a gold rush are present,” he concluded, alluding to the frantic grabs that characterize such phenomena. “GNSS — pay for it, or shrink your spectrum need. Be aware and prepare for the next attack.”

Carl Milner of Imperial College London and Andy Proctor of Chronos Technology then took up the pragmatic, doing side, and even generated a few near-hits, with talks on the GAARDIAN and SENTINEL projects, respectively. GAARDIAN has largely concluded its three-year run to deliver prototype sensors and probes to detect interference and give alarms, as well as detailed analyses of the GNSS environment.  Milner reminded us that 800 billion (British pounds or euros, nearly equivalent at this point), or 6 to 7 percent of Western Europe’s annual gross domestic product, is dependent on GPS. That means 94 billion pounds in the UK, rising yearly.

The British economy (and by implication the European, U.S., and global economies) is vulnerable, by this dependence, to interruption of the energy supply, breakdown of communications, transport, and financial services, and potential loss of life  — all with no operational monitoring, detection, recourse, or back-up, prior to GAARDIAN and SENTINEL.

The follow-on SENTINEL is mid-way through its two-year life to take the next requisite steps:

  • Actually locating the interference;
  • categorizing it;
  • determining its extent;
  • giving a determination of trust in GNSS,
  • and addressing spoofing.

The project has a large user base in law enforcement and government.

The gloom kept descending like London fog with an after-lunch roundtable discussion on “Threats and Vulnerabilities of GNSS Signals,” moderated by Vidal Ashkenazi of Nottingham Scientific Ltd. A few direct quotes from the speakers, even without specific context provided, should give the flavor of the discussion.

Tim Just, UK Technology Strategy Board. “Consider the motivation of jamming first: is it in relation to privacy or personal choice, or to criminality? There is perhaps a third case, the hacker community, with intent to disrupt. It is very difficult to quantify those today.  Projects like GAARDIAN and SENTINEL, neither with full national coverage, are only just now starting.

“There is a choice: remove the jammers, or use other technologies to counter the jamming.  The latter is very expensive, and not available to civil market at the moment.”

Captain Frank Parker, U.S. Coast Guard. “The recent change to U.S. policy, enabling government agencies to use foreign GNSS services is a very important first step [in combatting jamming and interference].

“A key factor in determining whether the loss of PNT is due to an external factor, or if it could be something inherent in the receiver, is that the multiple international service providers of GNSS share information about the status and health of their constellations.

Professor Ashkenazi’s second main question, “What is the additional likely contribution of the Public Regulated Service (PRS) of Galileo?” elicited these responses, much encapsulated here.

Stefan Baumann, IABG GmbH. “We will get improved signal availability with multi-GNSS, but not such improvement in robustness.  M-code and PRS can help; But M-code restricted to military, so PRS is the way for civil user.”

Captain Parker. “Market forces drove elimination of other redundant technologies in the past. Market forces will determine the success, or not, of PRS, with its new market cost. In the United States, as the standard positioning service of GPS improved over the years, some users of high-precision services dropped off [and relied just on SPS].  The determining factor is not only cost, but also ease of use.

Michel Bosco, European Commission. “We are convinced about the added value, especially because of its robustness, of PRS.  We are engaged in discussions with user communities on this. We are planning on users being able to adopt the technology as soon as it is there.”

Stefan Baumann.  “The courts in Germany have interest in GNSS data which is 100 percent proof against spoofing.”  (Thus PRS.)

One emerged from the conference — and yes, it is indeed raining in London now — feeling as if one were wearing, not so much a badly chinked suit of armor, but a set of the emperor’s new clothes.

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