PNT Board opposes Ligado ‘lite’ proposal, DARPA seeks photonics

August 28, 2018  - By

On Aug. 10, the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board, the government’s GPS expert board, sent a letter to the National Executive Committee for Space-Based PNT (a multi-agency body that steers GPS policy) that concluded, “We strongly recommend your opposition to the Ligado proposal.”

The letter sprang from a unanimous vote five days earlier to oppose allowing Ligado Networks to use spectrum neighboring the GPS band for terrestrial communications.

Ligado possesses licenses to broadcast on two satellite bands located adjacent to the GPS frequencies. The company has been seeking permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to repurpose these licenses from satellite-based use to ground-based use from powerful tower transmitters.

Ligado said in May it would lower the power in its proposal for the 1526–1536 MHz band to 9.98 dBW to avoid interference with certified aviation receivers. However, the PNT Advisory Board reiterated its opposition, saying that even if the transmissions’ power was lowered to just under 10 watts, it “will create totally unacceptable interference for a great number of GPS users in the United States.”

From the Letter: “This risk is far too great, and far too many questions remain, for Ligado’s proposal to be approved. While there are many broadband alternatives (Ligado would be a very small percentage of this national asset), there is only one GPS. Any impairment to current and future uses is clearly contrary to the national interest. Therefore, implementation of their recently proposed ~10-watt operating scheme will create totally unacceptable interference for a great number of GPS users in the United States. In fact, despite power limits in their current amended application, it is probable they could still be allowed to increase this power over time. This would be even more destructive to GPS users.

“We believe avoiding degradation over at least 90 percent of the region near Ligado transmitters is the absolute minimum protection for GPS receivers in each class. This would be a hypothetical 90 percent Protection Evaluation. This is not an endorsement of this level since, of course, all users would prefer 100 percent protection. The Department of Transportation (DOT) Adjacent Band Compatibility (ABC) study is the only validated test to verify degradation at various received power levels.

“Those results inform that to insure degradation not exceed 10 percent of the Region (90 percent Protection) for High Performance receivers, either:

Ligado maximum power can be no more than .0036 watts at the 400-meter spacing they had earlier planned. Tolerable power would be 3/10ths of 1 percent of their proposed ~10 watts. Or

the closest spacing of Ligado transmitters is 20,000 meters (over 12 miles) for their proposed ~10 watt power level (see Figure 1).”

Figure 1. The PNTAB strongly believes that 90% is the minimum Area Protection Criterion (maximum 10 % degradation). (Chart: PNT Advisory Board)

Figure 1. The PNTAB strongly believes that 90 percent is the minimum Area Protection Criterion (maximum 10 percent degradation). (Chart: PNT Advisory Board)

DARPA wants photonic integrated circuits

High-energy photons emission (abstract illustration). (GiroScience/

High-energy photons emission (abstract illustration). (Photo: GiroScience/

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Microsystems Technology Office is soliciting research proposals for the development of a new class of atom-based systems using integrated photonics and trapped atoms to enable high-performance, robust, portable clocks and gyroscopes.

The military researchers are asking industry to develop relatively simple portable photonic integrated circuits (PICs) for high-performance position, navigation and timing (PNT) devices as an alternative to GPS for when satnav signals are not available.

A PIC or integrated optical circuit, similar to an electronic integrated circuit, integrates multiple photonic (having to do with light) functions, providing capabilities for information signals imposed on optical wavelengths, typically in the visible spectrum or near-infrared, 850–1650 nanometers.

A-PhI Program

The Atomic-Photonic Integration (A-PhI) program seeks to develop trapped-atom based, high-performance PNT devices, reducing the complexity of these atomic systems by using PICs. According to the DARPA document, the PICs will replace the optical assembly behind devices such as sensitive and accurate angle sensors and clocks, while still enabling the necessary trapping, cooling, manipulation and interrogation of atoms.

A-PhI aims to demonstrate that compact PICs can replace the optical bench of conventional free-space optics for high-performance trapped-atom gyroscopes and trapped-atom clocks without degrading the performance of the underlying physics package.


Atomic systems using trapped atoms have the potential to be made portable while maintaining their accuracy due to the atomic trap’s small size and the inherent isolation a trap offers an atomic system from the environment, especially from acceleration.

Currently, these systems are bulky, heavy, and not notably portable, because of the complexity of the optical systems used to create the trap.
In the past, efforts to miniaturize the hundreds to thousands of optical components in such benchtop systems have relied on removing optical elements, miniaturizing the remaining elements, and tightly integrating them in a small package.

The products deliver degraded performance with the need to maintain very tight optical alignment, causing both poor environmental robustness and poor tolerance to design errors. Effective miniaturized atomic systems cannot be achieved at a reasonable cost with this approach.

Recent developments in PIC research suggest that on-chip optical frequency combs based on microresonators, optical frequency synthesis, novel on-/off-chip coupling, wavelength demultiplexers, and on-chip phased arrays for dynamic manipulation of light fields can replace optical systems with readily manufacturable, low-cost chips without the alignment sensitivity of conventional free-space optics.


A-PhI also seeks to develop proof-of-concept trapped atom gyroscopes, a matter-wave analog of the interferometric fiberoptic gyroscope. Such a miniaturization effort could generate an order of magnitude improvement in angular sensitivity and dynamic range over current free-space products.

A-PhI hopes to develop portable, high-performance, navigation and timing systems: the miniaturization of the optics of atomic systems without a decrease in performance. Subsequent work, the RFP asserts, will be required to incorporate the necessary compact and robust lasers and electronics to achieve a fully functioning, high-performance, portable PNT system.

About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.