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PNT by Other Means: Locata

July 5, 2023  - By

An exclusive interview with Nunzio Gambale, Co-Founder, President and CEO, Locata. For more exclusive interviews from this cover story, click here. 


Image: Locata

Locata dish antenna pointed to the European Union’s Joint Research Center in Ispra, Italy, 44 km away, just under the setting sun. The Yagi antenna above is pointed to a cell tower in Como and used to connect the system for remote control and data logging. (Image: Locata)

In brief, how does Locata work? What are the key concepts?

Almost everything you know about GNSS pretty much applies to Locata. We are an extremely close cousin. We use trilateration; in other words, we use time of flight from transmitter to receiver as our pseudorange. We work with both code and carrier solutions. We transmit CDMA Gold Codes, chipped at 10MHz. Everything in the algorithms that you use for GNSS is pretty much the same, and so it feels extremely familiar to any GNSS engineer. We have an interface control document (ICD) that describes our over-the-air interface, exactly as GPS or Galileo does. That’s available to our integration partners. So, the similarities are incredibly close.

The main place where we diverge greatly from GNSS is in the use of atomic clocks. One of the three fundamentals of GNSS is that all your transmitters have to be synchronized for the trilateration to work at your receiver. Syncing the satellites requires a master clock — in the case of GPS, with a redundant feed from the U.S. Naval Observatory — and a very complex ground infrastructure. Our system requires neither atomic clocks nor a control segment. Importantly, just like GNSS, our satellites do not communicate with each other. LocataLites, our version of the satellites, only broadcast a signal, thereby enabling an unlimited number of receivers to use our devices.

Locata’s core inventive step was the Time Lock loop invented by my partner, David Small. Any engineer is familiar with a frequency lock loop or a phase lock loop, which allows you to align either phase and frequency in a very intelligent way by looking at the offsets and then moving the two components into alignment. That’s what we do with time. It is a fundamental difference from requiring clocks, which all drift and are very difficult to synchronize, as the complexity and cost of the ground segment testifies. Many people get confused because they believe that super accurate atomic clocks will all give you the same time. Clearly, that’s not the case, because they drift relative to each other. However, satellite navigation requires keeping the clocks synchronized.

Our system is a synchronization technology that does not require atomic clocks. We synchronize our transmitters to incredible levels, better than what’s generally available from the synchronization of atomic clocks. That allows us to do everything that a GNSS does in our coverage area.

We’ve invented the Time Lock loop. Dave has more than 170 granted patents on this and on multipath mitigation. Nobody else has done this or can do it. All other high-precision systems require external correction systems. Our carrier solution is a single point solution. We don’t need any external corrections provided from reference stations, or communication links between our devices. Our system is, and remains, synchronous to the picosecond level, which allows us to do carrier-phase positioning without corrections. That’s utterly unique.

As the old joke goes, a person with a watch always knows what time it is, a person with two watches never does.

That’s one of my favorite quotations for people who don’t understand this.

It has been said that the only replacement for a GNSS is another GNSS.

And my favorite riposte to that is “the solution to satellite-based problems is not more satellites”!

We now have four GNSS but they have some common failure points. What’s your view of the debate about GNSS vulnerabilities and the need for complementary PNT? How does Locata fit into it?

One of our main drivers is the knowledge that all those global systems are fundamentally military based. Galileo tries to make itself an exception, I know, but the core motivation for nations to put up these kinds of very complex and expensive systems is for full global military purposes. Locata has probably been working on this complementary PNT technology longer than just about anybody else. We began in 1995, with the problem that GNSS does not work indoors. That was the first light bulb moment for us about the issues with GNSS not being able to serve all the potential future applications. So, we’ve been at this a long time. Global systems absolutely have their place, but there are many applications now and in the future that do not require them.

Where did your realization lead you?

We started to look at ways of filling in the holes that we saw in GNSS. That led us to the two unique capabilities that we’ve currently developed and commercialized: the synchronization of transmitters, which is the heart of all radio-based positioning, and, because we work in terrestrial systems, how to deal with multipath. Those are the core new enabling capabilities that Locata brings to the industry today.

There are mountains of reports detailing the vulnerabilities of GNSS, starting with the 2001 report by the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center for the U.S. Department of Transportation right through the very latest one from the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) in Ispra, Italy. All those myriad reports document the vulnerabilities of GNSS and the dire dependencies they create. These dependencies mean that the more than 95% of applications that are civilian are vulnerable, if and when the military have to do what they have to do with their systems in a military conflict. So, for us, it’s all about giving civilians and nations sovereignty, and national-level resiliency, firstly to critical infrastructure systems.

That’s what we set out to demonstrate with our long-range deployments at the JRC. Our systems must be able to be scaled, in time, from purely local up to national systems. Because Locata’s focus must be on civilian systems and sovereignty that can be delivered back to nations, with systems that are independent from the military ones. We’re not trying to replace global systems, at least for now.

GNSS provide positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) at the global level. You have addressed the global level. Let’s talk now about PNT.

P, N and T are all important. Timing, of course, is GNSS’s hidden component for most people, but it is critical to many applications. Anybody who wants to see the work that Locata has put in over the last couple of decades to bring new capabilities to the industry should look at the JRC’s report, which is the very latest and probably one of the most comprehensive reports that’s been produced in the past decade. The European engineers were incredibly thorough in the way they tested all candidate systems, including Locata. If I could speak proudly about our team’s achievements, Locata’s P, N and T results presented in that report speak for themselves. Locata’s technology was demonstrated to perform in every environment the JRC engineers requested, including indoors.

That’s one of the functions that we absolutely want to bring to market. Our systems don’t stop at the wall, they can continue to work indoors, you can propagate positioning and timing from outside to inside. The performance that was measured independently by the researchers showed that indoors we were delivering centimeter-level positioning in brutal multipath conditions, as well as outdoors.

Locata is doing superb work with some of the most complex automation systems in the world now, which unfortunately we’re constrained from discussing because of nondisclosure agreements.

Say more about the role of synchronization.

Locata dish antenna pointed to the European Union’s Joint Research Center in Ispra, Italy, 44 km away, just under the setting sun. The Yagi antenna above is pointed to a cell tower in Como and used to connect the system for remote control and data logging. (Image: Locata)

Locata dish antenna pointed to the EU’s Joint Research Centre, 8km away across Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy. This antenna was an intermediate node during the EU’s independent testing of Locata’s picosecond-level time transfer over a 105km distance. (Image: Locata)

Synchronization is the heart and soul of everything that we do with radio positioning. Clearly, Locata has been able to do high-precision synchronization without atomic clocks, at an almost unbelievable level, for many years. The first system that we deployed is at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where the U.S. Air Force jams GNSS over a vast area, yet Locata continues to deliver centimeter-level positioning and picosecond-level synchronization. That is unprecedented and cannot be done with satellite-based systems. The European JRC engineers measured our synchronization at the picosecond level, cascaded 8 times from one transmitter to another over more than 105 km. This is an extremely difficult thing to do, given that you’re trying to remove the propagation and component delays introduced by each intermediate transmitter. Our synchronization was measured to basically deliver timing equivalent to fiber, but over the air, using RF. I don’t believe any other company can demonstrate that.

This development allows us to start deploying systems commercially, which we are doing today via integration partners. In the future, as we miniaturize, bring the price down and scale our capabilities into other frequencies and at power levels that are commensurate to national-level systems, we intend to cover entire nations with our capability, and deliver not just what’s required today, but what’s required for future apps.

One of the few things that we don’t agree with in the JRC tender and report is that they set the PNT “performance bar” at 100 meters and one microsecond. For 80% or 90% of serious applications — especially for autonomous systems, and any applications that need fine control, including surveying — 100 meters is completely unusable, apart from maybe intercontinental aviation systems. Locata delivers the picoseconds and the centimeters that future applications require. As we commercialize further, we will deploy more and more systems that demonstrate that capability.

So, you could not use Locata to navigate on transoceanic flights.

No, we’re clearly not focused on doing that. We’re a business, and we’re working on the applications for which we see the most civilian, commercial value. Nevertheless, the U.S. Air Force does use Locata and so we’re in discussions with other militaries now. Clearly, we can cover very large areas — say, around airports and military bases — and continue to work at very precise levels, both for timing and positioning, in anything up to completely denied environments. It’s a proven fact that our systems are being used on a regular basis where GNSS has been jammed, and Locata is the truth for those tests. You cannot get a more convincing demonstration of non-GNSS-based PNT than the U.S. Air Force’s use of Locata at White Sands.

What about the application with by far the greatest number of users, which is cell phones?

Absolutely, without question, we believe Locata will eventually be used in mobile phone systems, especially for indoor positioning. Locata’s receivers today look very much like the 1990s version of GNSS receivers. However, there are zero engineering roadblocks to scaling or reducing our devices to a chipset. It’s a chicken and egg business development problem: you can’t get to mobile phone-type scale until you’ve engaged and are working with companies in that industry. Part of the reason we worked so diligently to demonstrate our new capabilities in the JRC tests, is that many of the claims that we’ve made about centimeters and picoseconds have been fairly unbelievable in terms of the capabilities that were previously publicly demonstrated. Our participation in the JRC tests was motivated in many ways by being able to point to the 140-page report produced by the engineers in Europe, and prove beyond question that we actually do what we claim.

We have now begun discussions with companies in the cell phone industry. Technically there’s no question that in the future we can reduce our receivers, firstly, and then our transmitters, into either chipsets or into IP cores that can be dropped into other companies’ chips. That’s a work in progress. The engineering to take this down to a chipset is now mostly constrained by not yet conducting business development in that market segment. However, we are working toward that, and are in discussion with some of the big players in that industry.

It sounds like you are working with different industries at different scales.

Locata engineers set up the distinctive VRay Orb antenna for an indoor cm-level positioning demo in the Joint Research Centre’s all-metal Workshop Building. (Image: Locata)

Locata engineers set up the distinctive VRay Orb antenna for an indoor cm-level positioning demo in the Joint Research Centre’s all-metal Workshop Building. (Image: Locata)

Yes, and the markets we are in today are delineated by the current form-factor of our devices. Today, our devices are similar to the GNSS receivers that you would have seen back in the 90s. Because we’re FPGA-based and not chip-based our devices tend to be relatively large, power-hungry and relatively expensive. That’s why we’re working into markets where that is not a roadblock. Our main partners today have massive problems that they need to solve, specifically for industrial automation applications. We’re working with some extremely large global businesses in some of the most complex and demanding automation applications in the world. It frustrates me enormously that we cannot publicize those yet because we’re under commercial non-disclosures. Therefore, we remain tight lipped about our current installations.

However, those in Locata’s inner circle know that we’re working with some of the most advanced automation capabilities in the world. I am very eager to show the world what we’re doing. And we soon will.
Obviously, the U.S. Air Force work that we’ve been doing for eight years is publicly visible. Our team right now is working with them on an extension of that contract. As I said, we’re also in discussions with some other nations and we look forward to being able to publicly disclose some of our applications in the future. For now, unfortunately, I need to remain tight lipped and just keep working on the installations that we have underway. Hopefully, soon, when these things become visible in public, I’ll finally be able to promote them.

Is sensor fusion relevant to Locata for certain applications or will it always be a standalone system?

Locata does not necessarily need to be standalone. Our partners, who are the experts in their machines and applications, are responsible for integrating Locata with other sensors, such as inertial units or cameras or lidar-based systems that may already be on their machines, just like they would with any GNSS system.

Our business model is working with partners. So, it’s a business-to-business model, whereby we partner with companies that have a problem they need to solve in their products. We work with their engineers to integrate our system — just like GNSS engineers work with their engineering partners to integrate receivers into systems of systems. That is generally what is required in many of the applications in which we’re used for autonomy.

One of the great features of our technology is that we can guarantee our partners, without fail, exactly how many Locata transmitters will be in view for their application in any area or environment. We can over-determine the solution on a site so that if, say, you get lightning strikes or power outages, the system can continue to function at the level that you require. That’s never possible with satellites, because you never know where your receivers will be relative to obstructions and the DOPs of the satellites. So, our system can be standalone. But in 90% of the applications in which we are working it is integrated into a system of systems, just like GNSS is.

What, if any, is the role of simulation with respect to your system?

We are currently in discussions with a major simulation company for integration into their software suite. They see enough demand now from enough players to be working with our integration. I can’t name them because it’s not a commercial system yet. However, they have our data and ICD, and they are working with our engineers to incorporate Locata simulations into their product offering.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Unlike GNSS or LEO-based systems, which take a long time to change, we can customize and modify our systems very quickly. Our next generation systems are frequency-flexible: we can put our systems into any radio band from 70 MHz, up through all the phone bands, the radio navigation bands for aviation, emergency services bands, right up to the 6 GHz WiFi bands. Those devices are in prototype right now. We can very quickly modify, update and upgrade our system, which allows us to have a very rapid development cycle that satellite-based systems will never have.

For instance, the U.S. Air Force’s NTS-3 Vanguard satellite that has been coming for several years will soon demonstrate new capabilities. Yet it will still take decades to deploy them. LEO satellites, which are getting an enormous amount of attention today, still have major constraints in terms of upgrades, modification, and or the deployment of new capabilities. Very few people in the industry talk about the replenishment of satellites which these massive constellations will need because in LEO orbits they will naturally deorbit every four to six years or so.

That means that there’s a huge requirement to continually replace LEO satellites in space, which will obviously require an enormous cost, and complex engineering effort. When you have several thousand satellites, in different planar orbits, deciding where you’re going to place replacement satellites for the many that are failing, is going to be an enormous headache for all these companies that are trying to put LEOs in space. Locata doesn’t have any of these issues. As we move forward, we will miniaturize, go to chipsets and software-defined radio capabilities. We can evolve at a rate that space-based systems can’t even begin to approach. Given that we live in an age of rapidly evolving threats and vulnerabilities, our ability to rapidly react to these challenges is, we believe, a valuable addition to the tool-box of PNT capabilities the world requires.

Thanks for allowing us this opportunity, Matteo, to speak to your large and expert audience.

This article is tagged with , and posted in Complementary PNT, Defense, GNSS, Latest News, Mobile, Online Exclusives

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at mluccio@northcoastmedia.net or 541-543-0525.