Survey Perspectives – Early July 2008

July 1, 2008  - By
Image: GPS World


PNT Advisory Board on the Virtues of 30 Plus

Last fall, I wrote a column about the Civil GPS Service Interface Committee (CGSIC). Essentially, CGSIC is the forum for the civil community to communicate with the people who manage the GPS, and vice versa. In this column, I’d like to climb up the ladder, so to speak, and talk about the Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) National Executive Committee.

The PNT Executive Committee was established by the president to “advise and coordinate federal departments and agencies on matters concerning” GPS. Specifically, its functions, according to the website, are to develop a national space-based PNT strategy, develop a five-year national space-based PNT plan, and conduct an annual assessment of the adequacy of the federal government’s department and agency budgets and schedules.

Let me be clear, the Civil Global Positioning System Service Interface Committee (CGSIC) and NAVCEN are still together the clearinghouse for the public to communicate with the people who administer GPS and vice versa. That hasn’t changed. But monitoring PNT Committee activities, reading various presentations given by PNT Committee representatives, and reading minutes from PNT Committee advisory board meetings can give one a view into the thoughts of those who influence GPS policy.

A Case in Point.

Some of you in the user community have been around GPS for a decade or longer. You may recall that back in the 90’s, the U.S. government attitude towards other countries developing their own GNSS was quite cold and unsupportive.

Since then, this attitude has changed 180 degrees. The U.S. GPS folks are reaching out and embracing GNSS development elsewhere. Joint working groups have been established that include U.S. GPS representatives and technical folks from the various GNSS programs to promote compatibility and interoperability between GPS and these other GNSS.

There is no better example of this than when the United States and Russia formed the GPS-GLONASS Interoperability and Compatibility Working Group in December 2004. Remember that GPS and GLONASS were both deployed during the height of the Cold War, so no technical communication (at least non-adversarial) was possible at that time. Fast forward to 2007 when the Russian Space Agency indicated that GLONASS would be migrating towards CDMA so GLONASS would be compatible with GPS and other GNSS in development. This is a truly remarkable turnaround.

Last September at the Institute of Navigation (ION) GNSS conference, Alice Wong, Senior Advisor on GNSS with the U.S. State Department, discussed many of the international cooperation arrangements the United States has with countries developing a GNSS. She made two revealing and significant statements. “The number of space-based signal providers will grow from two countries (the United States and Russia) to at least six or more by 2020,” she said. The United States has recognized that although it may have set the gold standard for GNSS, it’s growing beyond what it can control. That leads to Wong’s second statement, which described the U.S. attitude towards GNSS development and operation.

Interoperable = Better Together than Separate

I didn’t intend for this to become a column on U.S. international GNSS policy, but rather to illustrate the tremendous amount of information and links to be found on the website.

Beside the presentations by PNT representatives, another part of the that’s very interesting to monitor is the PNT Advisory Board. NASA (National Aerospace and Space Administration) established the board on behalf of the PNT Executive Committee. The board members are non-government GPS experts who provide advice on GNSS from a technical as well as program and policy perspective. There are some well-known and well-qualified individuals on the board. Some you would know by name, such as Charlie Trimble (formerly of Trimble Navigation) and Brad Parkinson of Stanford University. But there are also many others from industries outside of surveying/construction that you may not recognize, but that represent significant industries or offer valuable perspectives.

The board meets at least twice a year and publishes minutes from the meetings. Reading the minutes from these meetings is an interesting look at how future GPS policy may be shaped.

The minutes from the March 2008 meeting (all 31 pages) are now available at Please note that the board meetings aren’t limited to the PNT Advisory Board members. The meetings are open to the public, although audience members are asked not to interrupt the speakers. In the minute appendices, one can view a list of all who attended the March 2008 meeting.

In reading the minutes, one sees that a substantial part of the discussion centered on the optimal number of satellites and configuration of those satellites. To wit:

  • Gerhard Beutler, President, International Association of Geodesy

“Further, he reported that the scientific community, organized in IAG, was committed to exploiting the full potential of all GNSS systems: this, he said, required combining all systems measurements in a single analysis; placing laser reflectors on all GPS/GNSS satellites; and expanding the GPS constellation to 30-plus equally-spaced satellites.”

  • Bard Parkinson, Stanford University

“Dr. Parkinson, panel chair, said the Independent Review Team (IRT) had identified the Big Five essential GPS performance criteria: assured availability, resistance to interference, accuracy, bounded inaccuracy (in particular, the limit on the “wild result”), and integrity.”

  • Michael Shaw, director, National Coordination Office for Space-Based PNT

“Mr. Shaw commented that to meet a 30-satellite standard, 34 to 36 satellites would be required. Dr. Parkinson said he believed 33 would be sufficient; at present, he said, the commitment to 24 was not always maintained. Dr. Parkinson added that if the Federal government committed to 30, and didn’t always make it, ‘we would forgive you.'”

  • Capt. Joe Burns, United Airlines

“Capt. Burns from United Airlines commented that the improvements in civil aviation expected from a space-based air traffic control system would not be realized with the current constellation. Dr. Parkinson urged civil aviation to undertake and make public a cost/benefit analysis on the subject: he asked Capt Burns how many satellites he believed were required. Capt. Burns said at least 27, preferably 30. Ms. Neilan said it appeared all present believed 30 satellites were needed. She asked Dr. Parkinson if his analysis had been intended to prompt persons at DoD to reconsider whether the 21 plus 3 constellation was indeed adequate to their needs. Dr. Parkinson said he did not know what affect his study might have.”

The discussion time spent on the number of optimal GPS satellites is positive and I think it speaks to the future of what we can expect. Even though we enjoy 31 satellites today, the DoD only guarantees a 24-satellite constellation. I also like the fact that Parkinson is staying on target with the same message of the Big Five that I first heard at the ION GNSS 2006 conference.

If you get a chance, take a break and read through the minutes. It’s worth the time.


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