GPS Insights: Looking Aft, Looking Fore

May 8, 2007  - By
Image: GPS World

I recently attended the 23rd National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As I walked around the exhibit halls one morning, I couldn’t help but think that of all the 140 exhibitors, there were only a handful, less than five actually, whose livelihood was not inextricably linked to GPS.

To think that all these billion-dollar companies, and the start-ups as well, depended to such a great degree on a ubiquitous global utility that only became available on a global basis because of a seemingly insignificant, but in the end. deadly navigation error. Add to this the naked aggression and paranoia of the former Soviet Union and the benevolence and caring of a legendary U.S. President, and you have the beginnings of a tale that has changed our world forever, and whose final chapter may never be written.

In this month’s column, you can read about:

The past,
the future,
and the further-out future of GPS in the military-government sphere.

You can go directly to each topic by clicking on the respective link above, or read the whole column by simply starting with the first one.

The past

It was almost 24 years ago that a commercial (passenger) Korean airliner inadvertently strayed into Soviet airspace because of a navigation error that probably occurred while the aircraft was still parked on the tarmac in Alaska.  Investigators now believe that the flight crew accidentally entered the wrong parking spot coordinates into their inertial navigation system) and therefore were off-course from the moment they departed. This original, seemingly insignificant error of only a few feet was magnified on their long over-water flight with no other enroute navigational aids to ameliorate their error. At that point in time the best INS was only good to about 1 nautical mile per hour for cross-track navigation accuracy and without updates could easily be ten nautical miles off after ten hours of flight time. The original position error resulted in an initial erroneous heading of 245 degrees and a prevailing westerly wind all conspired to place them over Soviet Territory without their knowledge.

But wait, you say, the GPS constellation was in orbit and transmitting in 1983. Surely this would have automatically corrected the INS error; indeed it may have helped, if GPS had been available to commercial airliners at the time. But on this infamous date in 1983 GPS was restricted to government and military use. Originally designated the NAVSTAR (Navigation System with Timing And Ranging) Global Positioning System, GPS was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, with the Air Force as the lead, to provide all-weather round-the-clock navigation capabilities for military ground, sea, and air forces.

Only a handful of civilians were receiving the signals from space and then only for use in research and development programs. The general public knew almost nothing about the system, and certainly no commercial airlines were using it as an approved navigation aid. At the time of this incident, only eight GPS satellites were in orbit around the Earth. There should have been nine satellites, but the one and only GPS launch failure occurred in 1981. A full constellation is officially considered to be 24 satellites (four satellites in six planes). The United States current GPS constellation consists of 31 operating satellites of various ages and capabilities.

Dr. Bradford Parkinson (Col, USAF Ret and Professor Emeritus of Physics at Stanford University) and I have discussed many times the fact that the United States and thus the world came very close to not having a GPS of any description. Among others, Brad was a visionary and was also the first USAF GPS JPO Director and as such was responsible for getting the first GPS satellites in orbit. In truth Brad had the responsibility for putting the whole GPS plan and strategic vision together and selling it to the government, and it almost didn’t happen. But that is a story for another time; suffice it to say we all owe Dr. Bradford Parkinson a great deal of gratitude for his dedication, professionalism, and, I suspect, persistence.

So on September 1, 1983, Korean Air Flight 007, a Boeing 747, was on its own, navigating without GPS, and depending upon a perfectly good INS that had been programmed incorrectly and consequently informed the flight crew they were on-course and definitely not in Soviet airspace. Unfortunately, they were in Soviet airspace and had been for some time. Relations between the Soviet Union and Korea were not all that friendly in 1983. A few years before another Korean airliner had been shot down and crash-landed in the Soviet Union. Even though the Soviet interceptor pilots clearly saw the intended target carried the markings of a civilian airliner, (it’s hard for any pilot to mis-identify a 747), they followed orders (how many times have you heard that cliché) and blew the airliner out of the sky, just west of Sakhalin Island. KAL 007 carried 269 passengers and crew, including U.S. Congressman Lawrence McDonald. There were no survivors. An initial minor navigation error of a few feet, and 269 innocent civilians lost their lives, and as a consequence unknowingly ushered in the GPS Age for the rest of the world.

Shortly after this tragic event, President Ronald Reagan went on national and international television to decry this barbaric act by the Soviet Union and to offer the world a solution: an absolutely free and no-strings-attached solution that should prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again, at least from a navigation error. That solution was GPS, and it was a far cry from the GPS we know today — but that again is also a story for another time. It is enough to say that in this event and in many others throughout time, history has conspired to bring out the worst and the best of mankind, and consequently the world will never be the same.

The Future

So much for the history lesson. Lest I digress, there I was in Colorado Springs and about to see a navigation solution come to fruition that may have world-changing effects of its own. I first heard about Dr. James Spilkers’ new navigation idea about three years ago when we were sitting at breakfast together just before a GPS Independent Review Team meeting at IDA (Institute for Defense Analyses) in Arlington, Virginia.

Dr. Jim Spilker (the father of the GPS signal as we know it today and the founder of Stanford Telecom), Dr. Brad Parkinson (former CEO of Trimble and former Chairman of the Board of Aerospace Corporation), Dr. Edwin Stear (former Senior VP and Chief Scientist at Boeing), Dr. Alison Brown (CEO of NAVSYS), John Darrah (former Chief Scientist of Air Force Space Command) and I were discussing Dr. Spilkers’ newest idea for navigation in areas where GPS provides a compromised solution, such as urban canyon situations, indoors etc.

Jim’s idea was to use existing, unmodified television signals as an enhancement to GPS navigation. His thinking at the time was that since the location of television transmission towers is surveyed down to the centimeter, and the signal strength is strong, especially when compared to a GPS signal, then he should be able to determine lines of position, especially if he knew the time of transmission, and then use those LOPs to determine a position and/or to enhance GPS. At the time I remember that while we were all intrigued, we also came up with about twenty reasons why this would be difficult to accomplish, and besides — we had GPS, what more could we want?  Even the brilliant among us are at times just a bit naive.

Fast-forward three years and Dr. Spilker, having overcome our paltry suggested technical and bureaucratic impediments, and more hurdles than I care to think about, is announcing the first navigation augmentation/enhancement product from his new company, Rosum: a chip-sized device that can be added to an existing GPS receiver, and uses existing unmodified television signals to determine a position.

But from where do television signals originate today? Certainly from terrestrial sources, and then many are transmitted through cable systems, and at first glance that seems unhelpful, unless you consider where the majority of cable systems get their feeds (downlinks). From geosynchronous satellites of course, just like those of us that forgo the middle man, somewhat, and get our signals direct to the dish on the side or roof of our home or office. Over-the-air television transmitters are located on large earthbound transmission towers that typically put out a lot of wattage and hence signal strength over a 50- to 100-mile radius. Sounds a lot like a super-sized pseudolite to me. Now Jim’s idea starts to sound a little more plausible, doesn’t it?

It is really intriguing how Jim and his cohorts managed to make this happen, and I will write more about it in the future. Hopefully, when I am in LA in a couple weeks time, I can get Jim to relate a little more about how it all came about and the hurdles that had to be overcome plus of course more about the capabilities of the system and Rosums’ future plans and products. Right now you can read more about it in a separate news item in this newsletter. You may also notice that Jim enlisted the help of those around the breakfast table that morning, and they are now either partners, supporters, or cheerleaders in this new navigation venture.

Which of course brings us to our newest augmentation for the PHGPST (Perfect Handheld GPS Transceiver). You guessed it, unmodified existing television signals using the new Rosum chip to allow navigation in what are typically GPS challenged areas of reception and/or during times of jamming or interference.

Many of you have written wanting to know just what all the components of the PHGPST are and indeed they are getting too numerous to mention in every column so we are in the process of establishing a separate place on the web page where these innovations, augmentations and additions will be listed and updated every month.

The Further-Out Future

In my list of notables at breakfast three years past, you will notice that I mentioned Dr. Alison Brown, the founder and CEO of NAYSYS, a twenty-year plus, growing boutique GPS think-tank and production facility located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Monument, Colorado.  Alison and I have been friends for more than 17 years and have served on many studies and boards in the past, but lately have been slightly out of touch until I caught up with her at the Joint Navigation Conference in Orlando, Florida last month. Over dinner we discussed her support of Rosum and other GPS matters, but the one that intrigued me most and currently makes the biggest difference to our war fighters and allies is Talon NAMATH.

This critical GPS enhancement allows our warfighters to better use the Air Force’s smaller and newest precision weapon, the GBU-39 small-diameter bomb. Talon NAMATH significantly boosts the bomb’s accuracy and reduces collateral damage to non-combatants. But again this program almost did not happen. With all the budget-cutting and bill-paying due to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, this critical project was cut from the funding line and it was only through Dr. Brown’s persistence, and warfighter support, which included lots of letter writing and physically walking the halls of Congress, to promote an idea she really believed in, that Talon NAMATH managed to get out of the idea stage and into the field.

Other supporters of numerous key innovative Talon programs like Talon NAMATH are the seven Air Force Battle Labs, which are now being shut down because of budget constraints. Six of the seven Battle Labs were established in July 2007 by directive of then-Air Force Chief of Staff General Ronald Fogleman, who wanted the Air Force to capitalize on innovation and have the ability to fast track programs crucial to our war fighters.

Without exaggeration, I know I could write columns for the next ten years about Talon programs that have saved lives and innovations that have changed the face of warfare for our military members, not just in the Air Force, but across the DoD and for our Allies as well. I feel strongly that this is a monumental mistake and the Air Force will soon regret this decision. Shutting down an innovative and proven successful fast-tracking acquisition program while this country is at war is a disservice to our war fighters and one I predict the Air Force will re-energize either as reconstituted Battle Labs; or if that proves to be too embarrassing then under a different name, but with the same stated purpose.

I am running out of time and room, but I do want to thank all those who continue to write and I want to remind you that I always answer my mail.

See you right here next month.

This is posted in Defense

About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.