GPS jamming at UAV expo

May 31, 2024  - By

The Baltic, Ukraine, and the Middle East may be hotbeds of GPS interference that can hamper UAV operations, but these are not the only places in the world where it is happening.

It also happened in San Diego at the premier event for UAV operators— the XPOTENTIAL 2024 conference of the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

AUVSI is the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of uncrewed systems and robotics. Members present included corporations and professionals from more than 60 countries involved in industry, government and academia and work in the defense, civil and commercial markets.

One of NavtechGPS’ directional finder identifies the source of interference at AUVSI’s Xpotential 2024 in San Diego. (Image: Dana Goward)

One of NavtechGPS’ directional finder identifies the source of interference at AUVSI’s Xpotential 2024 in San Diego. (Image: Dana Goward)

Among conference attendees were Franck and Trevor Boynton of NavtechGPS, a small Northern Virginia company specializing in GPS products and related services. One of their services is locating devices that are interfering with GPS reception.

“In our work around the country we have found a wide variety of devices interfering with GPS,” said Franck Boynton. “It’s a lot more common than you think. We found truckers with jammers interfering with port operations, for example,” he said. “But accidental interference is an even bigger problem. Most of the time we find it is just some malfunctioning equipment making the radio noise.”

Boynton’s experience is consistent with the 2019 European Union STIKE3 sampling project that detected more than 450,000 signals with the potential to interfere with GPS and other satnav signals. Experts determined that only about 10% of those were intentional. The rest seemed to be a byproduct of mechanical and electrical equipment not functioning quite properly.

Of course, intentional or accidental, interference with GPS signals can be a problem for both manned and unmanned aircraft, vessels and vehicles.

Intentional interference in conflict areas has turned UAVs and missiles away from their targets, and in some cases, back on attackers. It has impacted the safety and efficiency of aviation and maritime traffic nearby. As one example, regular jamming in the Baltic region recently resulted in the cancellation of scheduled commercial air service to a city in Estonia.

Accidental interference has caused survey UAVs to crash and created multi-day problems at the Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth major airports.

In at least one instance accidental interference almost ended in tragedy. In 2019 a commercial passenger aircraft near Sun Valley, Idaho nearly crashed into a mountain. Fortunately, a sharp-eyed radar controller hundreds of miles away intervened and directed the aircraft back on course.

Nearly 600 vendors filled the AUVSI XPOTENTIAL exhibit hall this year. While perusing the displays, the Boyntons detected a strong signal interfering with GPS frequencies. Thinking it was coming from one of the exhibits, they were surprised to find that not only did it turn off and on but it seemed to be moving around.

Using one of the direction finders that NavtechGPS sells, they were able to track the source to a film crew roaming the hall and speaking with exhibitors and attendees. The wireless microphone being used for interviews turned out to be the culprit. Since the film crew was unable to repair or replace the mic, the interference continued intermittently inside the hall for the rest of the event.

“Interference of all kinds with GPS and other satnav signals is a growing problem,” according to Franck Boynton. “As we continue to implement more autonomous systems, it will be increasingly important to ensure they have resilient navigation, and we eliminate as many sources of interference as possible.”

AUVSI did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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About the Author: Dana Goward

Dana Goward is president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. He is the proprietor at Maritime Governance LLC. In August 2013, he retired from the federal Senior Executive Service, having served as the maritime navigation authority for the United States. As director of Marine Transportation Systems for the U.S. Coast Guard, he led 12 different navigation-related business lines budgeted at more than $1.3 billion per year. He has represented the U.S. at IMO, IALA, the UN anti-piracy working group and other international forums. A licensed helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, he has also served as a navigator at sea and is a retired Coast Guard Captain.