Septentrio demystifies GNSS corrections

April 27, 2020  - By

This insight column from Septentrio explains the role of GNSS corrections in precise positioning. It explores the three most popular correction methods: RTK, PPP and PPP-RTK.

Let’s say you need reliable accurate global positioning in your technology. You do some research and decide to get yourself a multi-frequency GPS/GNSS receiver. You order an evaluation kit, but how to get your receiver to deliver the high accuracy that it promises?

GNSS receivers rely on external corrections to compensate for GNSS errors to achieve decimeter- or centimeter-level accuracy as fast as possible.

Correcting GNSS errors

GNSS-based positioning is calculated using a method that, by itself, is limited in accuracy due to several errors caused by GNSS satellites as well as the Earth’s atmosphere.

  • Even the advanced clocks on board GNSS satellites experience minute drifts that cause clock errors.
  • The movement of GNSS satellites is predicted as they orbit the Earth. These predictions are not perfect, which results in orbit errors.
  • Satellite equipment introduces small signal errors, which are modeled as satellite biases.
  • Atmospheric errors caused by distortions and delays are experienced by the signal as it passes through the Earth’s ionosphere (outer layer) and troposphere (layer near the Earth’s surface).
  • The local environment around the receiver as well as the receiver itself can introduce errors. For example, satellite signals can be reflected off buildings and tall structures (multipath).

A GNSS receiver cannot correct satellite and atmospheric errors by itself; it relies on data provided by an external source. Clock and orbit errors are satellite-dependent, and so are the same around the world. Atmospheric errors, on the other hand, depend on the path the signal takes as it travels from the satellites to the user, differing depending on the receiver’s location.

To overcome both satellite and atmospheric errors, a reference station (also known as a base station) can be used. A reference station — a GNSS receiver installed at a fixed and precisely known location — estimates GNSS errors and sends them in the form of GNSS corrections to the user receiver. A reference network consists of interconnected reference receivers spread over a geographic area.

A user receiver gets data sent from a GNSS reference station to correct satellite and atmospheric errors. (Image: Septentrio)

A user receiver gets data sent from a GNSS reference station to correct satellite and atmospheric errors. (Image: Septentrio)

Receiver-side errors can only be handled partially, by robust receiver technology and careful operation. Depending on which type of corrections are applied, it can take a few seconds to several minutes of initialization time for high accuracy to be achieved.

Types of corrections for high-accuracy positioning

Until recent years, RTK and PPP have been the established methods of providing GNSS corrections to user receivers. But the demand for high-accuracy positioning is on the rise, paving the way for new positioning techniques such as the hybrid PPP-RTK.

RTK: Highest level of accuracy. With the RTK (real-time kinematic) method, a user receiver gets correction data from a single base station or a local reference network. It then uses this data to eliminate most of the GNSS errors.

RTK is based on the principle that the base station and the user receiver are located close together (a maximum 40 kilometers or 25 miles apart) and therefore “see” the same errors. For example, since the ionospheric delays are similar for both the user and the reference station, they can be cancelled out of the solution, allowing higher accuracy.

While in the RTK method corrections are provided for a specific location, in the PPP and PPP-RTK methods, a correction model is broadcast to a larger area, but with slightly lower accuracy. To transmit this correction model, a message format called SSR (Space State Representation) can be used. There is some confusion in the industry about the term “SSR” since it is often associated with the newer PPP-RTK method. But be careful, since “SSR” is occasionally used as a buzzword to refer to traditional PPP services as well.

PPP: Globally accessible and accurate, but at a cost. Precise point positioning (PPP) corrections contain only the satellite clock and orbit errors. Since these errors are satellite specific, and thus independent of the user’s location, only a limited number of reference stations is needed around the world. Because atmospheric errors are not included in PPP corrections, only a lower accuracy level can be achieved with this method. Also, a longer initialization time is expected of up to 20-30 minutes, which may not be practical for some applications. PPP has been traditionally used in the maritime industry; today it has expanded to various land applications such as agriculture as a convenient way to get global GNSS corrections.

PPP-RTK: Best of both worlds? PPP-RTK (a.k.a. SSR) is the latest generation of GNSS correction services, combining near-RTK accuracy and quick initialization times with the broadcast nature of PPP. A reference network, with stations about every 150 kilometers (100 miles), collects GNSS data and calculates both satellite and atmospheric correction models.

As explained above, atmospheric corrections are regional, and so a denser reference network is needed than for PPP. These corrections are then broadcast to subscribers in the area via internet, satellite or telecom services. Subscribed receivers use the broadcast correction model to deduce their location-specific corrections, resulting in sub-decimeter accuracy.

Comparing the three GNSS correction methods

The table below compares the three correction methods, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses.

Table: Septentrio

Table: Septentrio

The infrastructure density and initialization time for all three methods vary with the different kinds of errors that are corrected. The broadcast nature of PPP-RTK and PPP, as well as the lighter infrastructure that they require, makes these methods scalable for mass-market applications.

Types of errors which are corrected by each of the three methods. (Image: Septentrio)

Types of errors that are corrected by each of the three methods. (Image: Septentrio)

Some GNSS receivers also incorporate advanced positioning algorithms to compensate for receiver-side issues such as multipath (for example, see Septentrio APME+), jamming and spoofing. This adds reliability and robustness to high-accuracy positioning.

Getting GNSS corrections

Modern industrial receivers often get their GNSS corrections via a subscription service, delivered via internet (using NTRIP protocol), satellite or 4G/5G. Today, there is a boom in the correction-service market driven by high-accuracy demands of the automotive industry, automation and smart consumer devices. Automotive suppliers and many other new players are deploying infrastructure to set up services for centimeter-level positioning around the globe.

User receivers often get their GNSS corrections via a subscription service delivered via Internet, satellite or 4G/5G. (Image: Septentrio)

User receivers often get their GNSS corrections via a subscription service delivered via internet, satellite or 4G/5G. (Image: Septentrio)

PPP and PPP-RTK corrections can even be transmitted directly by the GNSS satellites, as in the Japanese CLAS service from the QZSS constellation, or in the planned High-Accuracy Service (HAS) from Galileo. Depending on the network density and quality of the error modeling, different initialization times and accuracies can be achieved. This means that positioning quality can vary from one service provider to another.

Major telecom companies such as Deutsche Telekom as well as the Japanese Softbank and NTT are equipping their infrastructure with GNSS receivers to enable new corrections services. 3GPP, which provides specifications for mobile telephony including LTE, 4G and 5G, now covers broadcasting of GNSS satellite corrections in its mobile protocol. Since reference receivers are becoming part of critical infrastructure, such as telecom towers, it is essential that they have a high level of security to protect them from potential jamming or spoofing attacks (for example, Septentrio AIM+ technology).

Which corrections are right for me?

The right correction service for your technology will depend on your location and service area, your accuracy and reliability needs, as well as your budget. Because the corrections market keeps expanding, it is now more important than ever that integrators or GNSS manufacturers assist you in selecting the best correction method for your industrial application.

If you choose a GNSS receiver which does not “lock” you to a certain correction service, you will be free to choose a correction method which is most suitable for your application and its location. Such “non-locking” open-interface receivers also offer customers flexibility to switch to another more beneficial service in the future, as correction methods keep evolving.