Innovation: Mode N provides alternative PNT for aviation

Photo: guvendemir/E+/Getty Images

Photo: guvendemir/E+/Getty Images

By Brandon Weaver, Gianluca Zampieri and Okuary Osechas

Innovation Insights with Richard Langley

Innovation Insights with Richard Langley

IT’S A FACT. GPS and its brethren global (and regional) navigation satellite systems are susceptible to outages caused by both natural and engineered events. Several reports issued in the past couple of decades have documented the vulnerability of GNSS. Twenty years ago this past August, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center issued a report, commonly referred to as the Volpe Report, in which they found that “GPS service is susceptible to unintentional disruptions from ionospheric effects, blockage from buildings, and interference from narrow and wideband sources.” Although not explicitly mentioned in the report, besides emissions from communications systems, wideband interference can come from solar radio noise storms overpowering GPS signals. The report also highlighted that the “GPS signal is subject to degradation and loss through attacks by hostile interests. Potential attacks cover the range from jamming and spoofing of GPS signals to disruption of GPS ground stations and satellites.”

The Volpe Report recommended a number of actions to mitigate the vulnerabilities of the GPS signal to disruption or loss, including the need for backups for positioning, navigation and timing — particularly for GPS applications involving the potential for life-threatening situations such as the loss of GPS use for safety-of-life navigation, which would include, for example, aircraft navigation.

With the introduction of GPS (and subsequently the other GNSS and their augmentations) and its widespread adoption by the aviation industry, legacy navigation systems such as Omega, aviation radiobeacons, VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR) and Distance Measuring Equipment (DME), were either shut down, reduced in their number of installations, or displaced as the primary method of navigation. These systems could not offer the same capabilities as GNSS, and that has led to the high reliance now on GNSS for getting aircraft safely from one airport to another.

But as the Volpe Report pointed out, GPS and (by inference) all other GNSS are susceptible to outages, and so a reliable alternative PNT system that can be readily used for aircraft navigation is needed. Deutsche Flugsicherung, the German air traffic control organization, has proposed such a system, called Mode N. It builds on some aspects of existing navigation systems and aviation-certified signals not originally intended for navigation, including some used for communications and surveillance.

In this month’s column, a team of researchers from the German Aerospace Center introduce us to Mode N, looking at its signal format, required ground infrastructure, aircraft avionics and the potential position accuracy this system could offer.

To accommodate the continued growth of air traffic, air navigation service providers (ANSPs) are planning and implementing programs to increase the capacity and efficiency of airspace. These programs, which include the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) led by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Single European Sky ATM (Air Traffic Management) Research Programme (SESAR) commissioned by the European Union, heavily rely on GNSS to enable certain capabilities to reach program goals. While intended to serve as the primary source of positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) for aviation services going forward, GNSS is vulnerable to sources of interference. For this reason, efforts have been taken to identify and develop an alternative PNT (APNT) system that can maintain capabilities supported by GNSS when a GNSS outage occurs.

The ANSP for Germany, Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), has proposed a concept for such a system that they call Mode N. The proposed design leverages current navigation and surveillance technology to provide a completely new solution to navigation. As the current APNT environment is filled with a variety of proposed solutions spanning the entire field of communications, navigation and surveillance (CNS) technologies, it is useful to describe Mode N within the context of these other APNT systems. This contextual description serves to highlight the interaction of Mode N with current aviation systems — an important consideration for any system intended to serve aviation users. Additionally, as the Mode N design uses similar technological principles as other navigation and surveillance systems, the extensive research performed for APNT can be applied to the Mode N design to provide a preliminary assessment of its navigation performance over Germany.

Development of APNT

The current state of aviation navigation can be simplified by acknowledging that GNSS has replaced legacy navigation systems such as Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) and VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR) beacons as the primary method of navigation for aircraft. GNSS PNT services enable many capabilities in the airspace that are relied upon by modernization efforts to accommodate the expected increase in air traffic in a safe and efficient manner. Because of GNSS vulnerabilities outlined in the 2001 Volpe Report, it was recognized that an alternative system that could enable the same capabilities as GNSS would be necessary to continue safe and efficient operation of airspace as envisioned if GNSS is unavailable.

Proposed APNT solutions are generally sourced from the existing CNS environment. A common strategy is to use an aviation-certified signal not originally intended for navigation, which we have termed repurposed aviation signals (RAS). Other proposals include improving legacy systems, transmitting the ground-computed position to an aircraft, and creating new systems entirely. These sources of APNT are summarized in FIGURE 1 with explanations of the abbreviations to follow.

FIGURE 1. Sources of APNT for navigation. (Image: Weaver et al)

FIGURE 1. Sources of APNT for navigation. (Image: Weaver et al)

A natural candidate for APNT is the use of existing non-GNSS navigation infrastructure. Prior to GNSS, VOR beacons providing beacon-relative heading information and DME navaids supplying two-way range information were the primary navigation infrastructure. Improvement in DME avionics enabled tracking of multiple DME stations, providing a DME-only position solution referred to as DME/DME. Adding DME ground stations and upgrading existing hardware to increase accuracy and coverage of DME/DME positioning was therefore an attractive APNT option.

Another option sourced from the existing navigation infrastructure was to use RAS for positioning. One such RAS is that of the DME reply signal to a non-existent aircraft. By triggering DME responses in a desired fashion, aircraft can use the triggered responses for passive ranging without any change to the DME ground stations.

Communication systems for aviation are also undergoing modernization efforts. Future communication systems (FCS) are being developed to provide broadband communication capability between aircraft and controllers.

Surveillance is the domain of ground-based systems that determine the position of remote objects and is fundamental to allowing safe spacing of aircraft. Its origins reside in the development of primary radar, which was then complemented with secondary surveillance radar (SSR). Both primary radar and SSR use a rotating antenna to measure range and bearing to determine the location of the remote objects. Radar systems tend to be clustered around airports, limiting their area of coverage. To expand coverage in challenging terrain where radar is difficult to install, a technique known as multilateration is used, where a surveillance ground system can receive a signal from an aircraft and determine its position by comparing the time of arrival (TOA) of the signal between its ground stations. These systems were considered as a source of APNT by providing the aircraft position computed on the ground back to the aircraft via data uplink, but timely authentication and integrity concerns have stalled this approach in the United States.

Surveillance RAS for APNT. The other branch of surveillance-sourced APNT is by using RAS, and this is very relevant to the design of Mode N. The system providing many of the RAS for navigation is ADS-B. With this service, an aircraft broadcasts its GNSS-derived position (ADS-B Out) to ground-based stations and any aircraft capable of receiving ADS-B transmissions. ADS-B is an important part of airspace modernization strategies; it is mandated for aircraft operating in most U.S. airspace, with European mandates following suit. ADS-B ground stations, referred to as ground-based transceivers (GBT) or radio stations (ADS-B RS), collect ADS-B Out messages for use by air traffic operators. These ADS-B RS also provide their own transmissions for use by aircraft that can receive ADS-B broadcasts (ADS-B In capability) and include weather information, nearby air traffic and so on.

ADS-B can use different protocols to transmit its signals. The Mode S (S for selective) protocol was designed to allow SSR ground stations to selectively interrogate aircraft in their coverage area, reducing congestion on the reply frequency. The Mode S reply format consists of a four-pulse preamble and a data block containing either 56 or 112 information bits for the aircraft to provide information dependent on the interrogation received. Mode S is internationally standardized, and an extended format known as Mode S Extended Squitter was adopted for Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) services. Mode S Extended Squitter or 1090ES (as it’s transmitted exclusively on 1090 MHz) is also used by the ADS-B RS that rebroadcast ADS-B Out (ADS-R) and provide traffic information services (TIS-B) to nearby aircraft with ADS-B In capability.

Another protocol, used in the United States, is the Universal Access Transceiver (UAT) format. Like 1090ES, UAT is used by certain aircraft to transmit their ADS-B Out messages. Similarly, ADS-B RS transmits TIS-B and ADS-R messages with the UAT protocol; it also includes additional information that it transmits with the Flight Information Service – Broadcast (FIS-B). UAT signals are transmitted in the United States on an unused DME channel frequency of 978 MHz. FIGURE 2 summarizes the relationship between these surveillance signals and the services that use them.

FIGURE 2. Services using Mode S and UAT signal formats.(Image: Weaver et al)

FIGURE 2. Services using Mode S and UAT signal formats.(Image: Weaver et al)

Research investigating the ground-transmitted (ADS-B RS) 1090ES and UAT signals for ranging measurements greatly supports the assessment of Mode N presented here, as the Mode N system operates on a similar basis with a signal that blends characteristics of 1090ES and UAT.

Mode N Overview

Mode N (N for navigation) is a passive ranging system concept from DFS that seeks to provide APNT while reducing the spectrum congestion caused by existing aeronautical navigation and surveillance systems. The design includes the possibility for two-way and air-to-air ranging, but this overview focuses on the preferred passive mode of operation. It is designed around the Mode S format, which as mentioned, is used for SSR and ADS-B services. Despite early references to an SSR/N system, Mode N is not a new SSR mode but rather a new navigation system.

The basic concept is for Mode N ground stations to transmit on a single frequency signals that include ground station ID/coordinates, allowing aircraft with Mode N avionics to receive those signals and determine position in a similar manner to GNSS. As a single frequency is desired to minimize spectrum usage, the ground stations would space their transmissions apart to avoid intersystem interference. This scheme, known as time division multiple access (TDMA), would require information within the signal message on the scheduled time a ground station transmits, which the Mode N format allows.

Because Mode N shares many design aspects with Mode S, DME and other surveillance RAS, it is able to leverage previous APNT work for the benefit of its own analysis. Therefore, the overview of the design is described here relative to other APNT systems, as this is the basis of the preliminary performance assessment we present.

The Mode N Signal. The Mode N design proposes using the Mode S downlink signal format as the basis for its ranging signal to be used by the aircraft for passive position determination, with some key differences. The frequency channel on 1090 MHz is too congested to accommodate more signals; thus, the first difference is that Mode N intends to transmit on a different frequency. While the channel selection is still ongoing, unused DME channels have been identified as options for frequency allocation.

The second difference is the message content. As the Mode S downlink format transmits mainly aircraft-specific information, Mode N ground transmitters would instead populate their messages with information needed for passive ranging: ground station coordinates and time of transmission (TOT). The study of 1090ES messages (which also contain aircraft-specific information despite being transmitted by ground stations) as RAS required some special techniques to first identify which station was transmitting the message. The TOT is not present in 1090ES signals, but more importantly the time of transmission is not synchronized to any consistent reference. Aside from transmission frequency and message content, the Mode N signal design follows the Mode S downlink format (modulation, pulse shape and so on).

The Mode N signal also shares some aspects with the UAT signal, particularly the FIS-B segment. First, UAT is also transmitted in the United States on an unused DME channel. The FIS-B message, which provides weather information, transmits the ground station coordinates and information that can be used to estimate the TOT. Specifically, UAT messages are synced to UTC, and each ADS-B RS has a designated time slot within a one-second interval where it transmits its FIS-B message. This time slot is included in the message, and can be used to determine the TOT of the signal. Mode N is designed to work in this exact manner, minus the weather information. One crucial difference between UAT and the Mode N design is the type of modulation. Like Mode S, Mode N proposes using pulse-position-modulation (PPM) or on-off keying (OOK). The resulting wider bandwidth — estimated to be less than 4.6 MHz at –3dB — has better resistance to multipath, whereas UAT is frequency modulated to maintain a narrow bandwidth to avoid interference with DME and is more susceptible to multipath. Research on UAT signals for pseudoranging capability (also determined at a higher update rate than once per second) would be necessary for navigation, an important consideration for the final Mode N design.

Ground Infrastructure. The Mode N design, while based on RAS from the surveillance capability, requires new ground stations to transmit the Mode N signal. Requirements for the ground stations are that they provide adequate coverage to meet the requirements of an APNT system and that they are sufficiently synchronized in time. An initial time-synchronization scheme is the use of a radio frequency (RF) network consisting of the ground stations themselves, which requires radio line-of-sight of stations throughout the network. DFS performed a study and found that additional time-beacon stations would be necessary to maintain this RF time network, even though navigation coverage was provided using existing DME sites as hypothetical Mode N stations. Since these aspects of the design are still developing, the preliminary assessment we present assumes a network layout and time synchronization tolerance. As the Mode N design blends various CNS principles, a natural baseline design for the ground station locations consists of existing DME and surveillance sites in Germany. Using these locations for the ground stations enables computation of a horizontal dilution of precision (HDOP) at discrete locations throughout Germany. The assumed time synchronization is discussed further when developing a model of the Mode N ranging accuracy.

Avionics. An interesting aspect of the Mode N design is its proposed avionics unit. The Mode N avionics must be capable of receiving Mode N messages, which it can do with the existing DME antennas on aircraft. The Mode N avionics unit must then decode the messages for position determination. Its active mode for two-way and air-to-air ranging would require the Mode N avionics to transmit Mode N messages, again using the existing DME antenna.

Recognizing the continuing investment in the DME network by multiple countries, the Mode N avionics sensor is essentially built around a fully functional DME unit. This is intended to provide a seamless transition as Mode N stations are brought on line. The design of the avionics has little effect on the coverage assessment, aside from guaranteeing a minimum level of performance based on the current DME network, but is an important part of the implementation strategy. Furthermore, this blend of avionics has also been proposed for a unit compatible with DME and ADS-B (1090ES and UAT) signals.

Preliminary Coverage Assessment

Preliminary coverage assessments are a typical method to determine the feasibility of a proposed system to provide the required level of performance over a given area. A simple method of characterizing the position performance is in terms of the linear relationship between range error and DOP, where the range errors are assumed to be zero-mean, uncorrelated, and have identical distributions.

As the aircraft is assumed to have additional sensors for determining its altitude, HDOP is commonly used to characterize the expected horizontal position performance.

With range measurements, HDOP is a function of the transmitter geometry available to an aircraft at a given point. It is a straightforward computation to perform for a grid of points over the area of interest. The HDOP computation does depend on the type of range measurement, so passive (pseudo-) range, two-way range, and time difference of arrival (TDOA) measurements all have their corresponding DOP computation. Determining a model for the range error is less straightforward, and assessing the coverage potential of Mode N requires an estimation of the expected range error.

Modeling Mode N Range Accuracy. As Mode N is not an existing system, abundant quantities of real measurements are unavailable for empirically characterizing the range performance. However, since Mode N is heavily based on the Mode S signal format and functions similarly to the DME and UAT signals, which all exist and have been measured extensively, research investigating those signals can help derive the model for the Mode N range performance.

An alternate approach is to reference the standards for a specified performance level. For example, ICAO documentation specifies that the Airborne Collision Avoidance System (ACAS) logic use a zero-mean normal distribution range error model with a standard deviation of 50 feet, or about 15 meters. As ACAS also uses the Mode S signal format, this appears to be a reasonable source for the Mode N range error. However, since ACAS is an airborne two-way surveillance method, it does not exactly translate to a ground-based passive TDOA system such as Mode N. The 15-meter standard deviation is still useful, as it provides a check on the estimated Mode N accuracy. Other specifications suffer from similar drawbacks — Mode N does not directly apply to any single system. Thus, we apply the blended approach using previous APNT research.

The fundamental measurement for the passive ranging mode of Mode N is the TDOA between pairs of ground stations. This measurement is in seconds, and is translated to a range difference by using the speed of radio signal propagation in a vacuum. (See our conference paper for further details.)

Errors can be present in the TOA measurement, synchronization of the nominal TOT of the signals, and parsing of the time slot data field. The TOA measurement can have errors by inaccurate determination of the actual TOA due to noise or multipath and by the actual TOA differing from the nominal arrival time of the signal due to atmospheric delay. For terrestrial systems, propagation errors are considered to be dominated by multipath, so we don’t consider atmospheric effects here. Time synchronization errors are very important to the ranging accuracy, but it is assumed the time slot data field is parsed accurately. Other sources of error, such as inaccurate ground station coordinates, can affect the position error but have no effect on the range error. Additionally, the error originating from the change in aircraft position between reception of signals at ground stations is not considered in this article. The model of range accuracy can then be expressed as the root-sum-square (RSS) of the dominant individual error components.

We studied each error component in isolation, selecting the applicable APNT research to leverage based on the Mode N design aspect that most corresponds with that error.

Since the Mode N design also uses a pulsed signal, the evaluation of DME (specifically, DME/N) ranging performance is the starting point for estimating the TOA noise error. Part of the APNT effort was evaluating current DME performance, as it was thought it exceeded the specified performance in standards. A study found that current DME performance allowed a budgeted TOA error of 15 meters, 2σ.

For the Mode N error model, a 7.5-meter error is an attractive option to choose as it is the average of two other sources and is the most recent. This value is a conservative estimate of the TOA accuracy for Mode N because the Mode N/S pulse shape is narrower than the DME pulse with a greater bandwidth, improving theoretical accuracy. For the preliminary coverage assessment, a conservative estimate is desired, because the actual TOA accuracy will vary over an area depending on transmitter distance — which impacts the level of signal noise. Note that the DME TOA errors are not divided by two as is done for the total DME error as they apply to a one-way TOA measurement.

After assessing the relevant studies, we modeled the multipath component of the error following that from Mode S as 7 meters, 1σ.

The final error component to estimate for Mode N is that of the synchronization of the ground stations. Based on the results from studies of the UAT signal and those from eLoran, we set a 15-meter maximum bias as a 2σ error component in the Mode N error model.

Our error analysis is summarized in TABLE 1.

Table 1. Predicted Mode N range accuracy. (Data: Weaver et al)

TABLE 1. Predicted Mode N range accuracy. (Data: Weaver et al)

A total 2σ error for current DME performance of 92 meters has been established, which translates to 46 meters of range accuracy after dividing by two (since the DME signal is a two-way range). A substantial part of this error derives from the avionics bias, which is minimized for a “potential” DME error budget due to an assumed improved avionics performance. This results in a DME range 2σ error of 34 meters. We chose this value to compare as the effect of avionics has less of an impact in a passive ranging system such as Mode N.

Range performance for UAT signals was evaluated with measurements showing 20-meter (1σ) error when compared to GNSS truth, not including large biases attributed to ground station synchronization or processing errors. The 1090ES signals do not have an inherent ranging capability, so the TDOA measurement error of two ground station signals to one receiving station is difficult to measure. Instead, researchers have measured the differential TOA (DTOA) of one ground station signal received by two (GPS-synchronized) receiving stations to first identify which station transmitted the signal. When compared to the true DTOA based on ground station and receiving station coordinates, the measurements contained small biases around 10 meters with a standard deviation also less than 10 meters. Being DTOA measurements, these do not contain ground station synchronization errors, so the reported standard deviations correspond mostly with propagation and determining TOA. The 10-meter DTOA 1σ error can still be converted to a range error resulting in 14 meters (2σ). These results are summarized in TABLE 2.

Table 2. Comparison of Mode N with other APNT signals. (Data: Weaver et al)

TABLE 2. Comparison of Mode N with other APNT signals. (Data: Weaver et al)

Coverage Assessment. With the estimated ranging accuracy, a preliminary coverage over Germany could now be assessed. Using the current 29 surveillance site locations in Germany and assuming that a minimum of three stations is necessary for positioning, the estimated position accuracy is shown in FIGURE 3.

FIGURE 3 Estimated position error (in meters) for aircraft within a 100 nautical mile coverage radius using existing surveillance sites as installation locations for Mode N ground stations. (Image: Weaver et al)

FIGURE 3. Estimated position error (in meters) for aircraft within a 100 nautical mile coverage radius using existing surveillance sites as installation locations for Mode N ground stations. (Image: Weaver et al)

The coverage assessment used a “flat” Germany model with the estimated range accuracy from the preceding section (13 meters, 1σ). Atmospheric and terrain considerations were not applied in the assessment. It is important to note that this level of coverage would degrade at lower altitudes.

To determine whether this level of accuracy is sufficient for the airspace modernization efforts in Europe, the desired Required Navigation Performance (RNP) accuracy requirement must be examined. For RNP 1.0, where 1.0 refers to the required 95% or 2σ total system error (TSE) accuracy in nautical miles, the position error allocation is assumed to be 30% of the RNP/TSE value. The required position accuracy is shown in TABLE 3.

Table 3. RNP required horizontal position accuracy. (Data: Weaver et al)

TABLE 3. RNP required horizontal position accuracy. (Data: Weaver et al)

From Figure 3, aircraft at altitudes within the service volume supported by a 100-nautical-mile coverage radius are capable of meeting the accuracy requirement for RNP 1.0 and 0.3 within most of Germany. Coverage along the border is unavailable as only German surveillance site locations were used.


Although our derivation of accuracy and the coverage assessment method we used made several simplifying assumptions, the results indicate that Mode N has the potential to be a feasible APNT system. To be a part of the modern airspace navigation infrastructure, additional accuracy requirements must also be met. The integrity requirement is harder to meet than accuracy, and requires either redundant information available to the aircraft for a receiver autonomous integrity monitoring-like algorithm or a ground-based monitoring/augmentation system. Perhaps the biggest challenge to implementing the Mode N infrastructure is maintaining an RF-based time synchronization network. Convincing aircraft operators to update their avionics is another challenge to Mode N implementation, although the inclusion of DME functionality in the Mode N avionics seeks to ease that transition.


The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of Deutsche Flugsicherung.


This article is based on the paper “An Overview of the Proposed Mode N System in the Context of Alternative Position, Navigation, and Timing (APNT) Development” presented at ION ITM 2021, the virtual 2021 International Technical Meeting of The Institute of Navigation, Jan. 25–28, 2021.

BRANDON WEAVER is a researcher at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and works on alternative navigation systems.

GIANLUCA ZAMPIERI joined the Alternative Navigation Systems Group at DLR’s Institute for Communication and Navigation in 2019.

OKUARY OSECHAS leads the Alternative Navigation Systems Group in the Institute of Communications and Navigation at DLR.


Further Reading

(to come)

About the Author: Richard B. Langley

Richard B. Langley is a professor in the Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton, Canada, where he has been teaching and conducting research since 1981. He has a B.Sc. in applied physics from the University of Waterloo and a Ph.D. in experimental space science from York University, Toronto. He spent two years at MIT as a postdoctoral fellow, researching geodetic applications of lunar laser ranging and VLBI. For work in VLBI, he shared two NASA Group Achievement Awards. Professor Langley has worked extensively with the Global Positioning System. He has been active in the development of GPS error models since the early 1980s and is a co-author of the venerable “Guide to GPS Positioning” and a columnist and contributing editor of GPS World magazine. His research team is currently working on a number of GPS-related projects, including the study of atmospheric effects on wide-area augmentation systems, the adaptation of techniques for spaceborne GPS, and the development of GPS-based systems for machine control and deformation monitoring. Professor Langley is a collaborator in UNB’s Canadian High Arctic Ionospheric Network project and is the principal investigator for the GPS instrument on the Canadian CASSIOPE research satellite now in orbit. Professor Langley is a fellow of The Institute of Navigation (ION), the Royal Institute of Navigation, and the International Association of Geodesy. He shared the ION 2003 Burka Award with Don Kim and received the ION’s Johannes Kepler Award in 2007.

About the Author: Brandon Weaver

Brandon Weaver is a researcher at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and works on alternative navigation systems.

About the Author: Gianluca Zampieri

Gianluca Zampieri joined the Alternative Navigation Systems Group at DLR’s Institute for Communication and Navigation in 2019.

About the Author: Okuary Osechas

Okuary Osechas leads the Alternative Navigation Systems Group in the Institute of Communications and Navigation at DLR.