As Loran Fades, Attention Shifts to DGPS and SBAS

November 30, 2009  - By
Image: GPS World

Few precise-positioning users have employed Loran in a professional sense, although maybe you have in your personal life if you’re a airplane pilot or a mariner. Then again, if you’ve flown as an airline passenger or cruised onboard a ship, you’ve benefited from the back-up to GPS that Loran provides. Similarly, if you’ve used a mobile phone recently; you don’t see it, but the wireless carriers all use Loran as a back-up. That back-up is about to go away.

Loran was developed initially for marine navigation and then adopted for aviation navigation. I used Loran-C for aviation navigation in the early 90’s after I earned my private pilot’s license. It was much easier than triangulating off of VORs and NDBs. Yes, GPS receivers for aviation were starting to emerge at that time but flying is expensive so a hand-held GPS was an out-of-reach luxury for a newlywed who just bought his first house and was preparing to start a family.

Loran is a terrestrial (ground-based) system of broadcasting towers, somewhat synonymous with NDGPS. You can read details about the system in the link I provided, but essentially it’s a line-of-sight system in which the Loran receiver antenna needs a direct path to the tower to utilize the signal. Coverage depends on the density of the broadcasting towers. Some regions are covered better than others and when I was using it, there were many areas that were not covered. Accuracy is always an ambiguous subject with respect to navigation technologies, so I’ll go out on a limb and say that Loran-C accuracy is repeatable to about 20 meters. A proposal was floated to upgrade Loran to a system called e-Loran which is reportedly accurate to about 9 meters.

Anyway, over the past several years there’s been a discussion about what to do with the Loran system because it’s clear that GPS has supplanted Loran as the primary navigation system for marine and aviation. Several articles have been published in GPS World by industry experts with most being in favor of maintaining Loran. The primary argument is that we need a back-up system for GPS, not only for navigation, but for the many invisible ways that GPS supports the national infrastructure (financial networks, wireless communications, transportation).

Here are several relevant articles, from most recent to further back:

New Backward-Compatible Technique to Develop GPS+eLORAN User Base

Coast Guard Jettisons Loran

LORAN: What the President Meant to Say Was…

Loran Study Finally Unleashed: Says Keep It, Best Option

eLoran, Superhero Sidekick

Loran Gets a Witness

The Case for eLoran

In addition to these articles , the U.S. government publishes the Federal Radionavigation Plan (FRP) roughly on a biennial basis. There was one published in 2001, then 2005 and the last one was published in 2008/early 2009. It is the official policy document in which all US navigation systems are planned. According to the FRP, it is prepared jointly by the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation and a number of other contributing government agencies.

If you don’t have time to read the 2008 FRP, following is a telling statement from the document:

“In March 2007, the DOT Pos/Nav Executive Committee and the DHS Geospatial/PNT Executive Committee accepted the findings of the Institute for Defense Analysis’ Independent Assessment Team and approved to pursue the designation of Enhanced-Loran, commonly referred as eLoran, as a national PNT backup for the U.S. homeland.

At its March 2007 meeting, the National Space-based PNT ExComm supported this approach and tasked DOT and DHS to complete an action plan that includes identifying an executive agent, developing a transition plan to address funding and operations and requesting the approval by the DOT and DHS Secretaries resulting in a final decision. DoD has not approved eLoran as a GPS backup for military applications.

In March 2008, the National Space-based PNT ExComm endorsed the DOT/DHS decision to transition the LORAN system to eLoran.

With respect to transportation to include aviation, commercial maritime, rail, and highway, the DOT has determined that sufficient alternative navigation aids currently exist in the event of a loss of GPS-based services, and therefore Loran currently is not needed as a back-up navigation aid for transportation safety-of-life users. However, many transportation safety-of-life applications depend on commercial communication systems and DOT recognizes the importance of the Loran system as a backup to GPS for critical infrastructure applications requiring precise time and frequency.

Currently, DHS is determining whether alternative backups or contingency plans exist across the critical infrastructure and key resource sectors identified in the National Infrastructure Protection Plan in the event of a loss of GPS-based services. An initial survey of the Federal critical infrastructure partners indicates wide variance in backup system requirements. Therefore, DHS is working with Federal partners to clarify the operational requirements.”

By the way, that Independent Assessment Team mentioned in the first paragraph was led by Brad Parkinson, who knows someting about GPS. Further, the government read the report behind closed doors but refused to release it, until forced to do so nearly two years later, by public information access filings.

There still aren’t any answers to the question about a real back-up to GPS. No doubt it’s a vulnerable system. But that’s a subject for another day.

What’s Loran got to do with us?

The reason I’m writing about this is because as support for Loran wanes, attention (resources and focus) shifts away from Loran, it comes to bear more intensely on GPS navigation and its augmentations for marine and aviation; specifically DGPS and SBAS (WAAS/EGNOS/MSAS).

With a significant policy shift such as this (albeit it has been in the cards), manufacturers stop allocating engineering development resources to the products/technologies with a dim future and shift those resources to products/technologies with a bright future. True, DGPS has been around for better than a decade and SBAS for about half that time so there’s been plenty of time for manufacturer’s to exploit those technologies, but there is still a lot that can be done.

Engineers are experimenting with and implementing technologies in some interesting areas.

HA-NDGPS. High accuracy NDGPS. Currently with a high performance DGPS receive
r, one can attain about meter-level accuracy. Testing with HA-NDGPS, using a dual frequency GPS receiver shows that accuracies in the 10cm (95%) horizontal and 20cm (95%) vertical range are achievable within a 100 mile baseline according to the US DOT Federal Highway Administration Turner-Fairbank Research Center. Test broadcasts are being sent from a site in Hagerstown, MD.

Broadcasting DGPS/SBAS corrections via NTRIP. The emergence of RTK Networks has spurred the popularity of using the internet to deliver GPS corrections. NTRIP has become a commonly used method of accomplishing this. One of the weak points of DGPS technology has been the reliability and expense of broadcasting DGPS corrections via the 283-325kHz band. Of course, with NTRIP one must have internet access somehow and that typically happens via WiFi or GSM/CDMA mobile phone network. But it’s not that complicated. I’ve been with a GPS user who has pulled the SIM card from their iPhone, plugged it into a GPS receiver, and begin receiving DGPS corrections immediately.

During my last webinar, someone had posed the question if receiving SBAS corrections is possible via the internet in order to bypass the requirement to maintain visibility of the SBAS geostationary satellite. Streaming SBAS corrections via the internet is already happening in Europe. Users can access EGNOS corrections and bypass the EGNOS geostationary satellites by using SISNeT. A similar type of system could be implemented for any SBAS and not necessarily by the SBAS service provider. It could be a commercial entity.

I think the internet and GSM/CDMA mobile phone networks are really going to transform the way we transport data from reference stations to our receivers in the field. We’ve been fighting this battle of delivering GPS corrections for better than a decade. In the past, we’ve experimented with FM pagers and landline modems and now we’ve settled on low frequency radiobeacon, VHF/UHF/Spread spectrum and geostationary satellites but none are close to the perfect solution. GSM/CDMA mobile phone networks may be the final solution as the networks continue to build-out towards complete geographic coverage. Of course, we are helped immensely by the mobile phone industry whose focus on data for the many new social networking applications will drive the price of data plans downward.

By the way, almost all wireless carriers use Loran as a back-up technology; highly precise timing is a key aspect of how wireless communication works. The carriers use GPS for that, but if GPS goes down — as it did in San Diego during a memorable jamming episode a few years ago — so do all cell phones, if the carriers don’t have a timing back-up. In San Diego, they didn’t. Just something to think about, if you are using your mobile phone network to transport data or receive corrections.

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