The promises of M-code and quantum

December 13, 2017  - By
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November has certainly been a busy month, and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a number of standout events where defense PNT was discussed.

The National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board met in California; GPS World hosted a webinar on military PNT technology; and the International Navigation Conference took place in the U.K. Check out a brief roundup of what’s been taking place.

Next-generation GPS takes steps in the right direction

The December issue of GPS World magazine has an excellent update from Col. Steven Whitney. GPS itself is often referred to as the “gold standard” by which other GNSS and PNT solutions are benchmarked. And GPS is undergoing a fairly monumental modernization program, in order to stay current and provide the right services to the military. There are broadly three aspects to this: the next-generation ground segment, the space segment, and the user equipment.

It’s fair to say that the ride hasn’t been a particularly smooth one, and the Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX) has been plagued by delays and challenges. Following a Nunn-McCurdy breach in 2016, the future of the OCX development program looked to be hanging on a knife edge, but the program was recertified and continued.

At the PNT Advisory Board meeting on Nov. 15, Col. Gerry Gleckel (deputy director, GPS Directorate, Space & Missile Systems Center) gave an upbeat presentation on the status of GPS modernization. Describing the current status of OCX as “working through program challenges,” he described how the first integrated launch rehearsal between GPS III and OCX Block 0 had been completed in August.

The GPS III satellites themselves are in full production flow, with five satellites at various stages of assembly.

Figure 1. Five GPS III satellites are in production flow. (Credit: Gerry Gleckel, Nov. 15, 2017).

The next-generation military receivers, known as Military GPS User Equipment (MGUE), are also under development by a range of vendors, of which L-3 Technologies was the first vendor to receive security certification in 2016. A number of equipment form factors are being developed to address land, sea and air platforms, and great progress is being made.

Figure 2. Military GPS User Equipment (MGUE) will address a range of platforms. (Credit: Gerry Gleckel, Nov. 15, 2017)

The U.S. Air Force recently completed a number of successful test flights of a prototype M-code receiver on board a B-2 stealth bomber, which marks an important milestone for the GPS modernization effort. Let’s remind ourselves what M-code is, and what it does for us.

The promise of M-code

Until now, the military has relied on the encrypted P(Y) code to provide advantage on the battlefield. Compared to the civilian C/A code, the P(Y) offered improved accuracy, ionospheric correction, resistance to spoofing and a marginal level of jamming resistance.

M-code is quite a different picture. Rather than the traditional BPSK modulation schemes used by legacy signals, M-code utilizes a type of binary offset carrier (BOC) signal. In the case of M-code, the signal is a BOCsin(10,5) modulation, which has a power spectral density given by:

This power spectral density can be seen in the figures below, along with legacy C/A and P(Y) codes (and also the new L2C signal on L2). The M-code BOC signal has a number of important properties; I won’t describe all of them, but I will pick out a couple.

Firstly, the signal is able to support navigation warfare activities. Because the energy in the signal is spread in two lobes away from the center, it allows for the C/A code to be selectively jammed without affecting the military receivers. This is often referred to as “blue force jamming” or “blue on blue jamming,” where friendly forces might wish to perform jamming in an environment in which they are themselves operating. Currently, such blue force jamming is not possible with P(Y) code receivers, without also degrading the friendly force’s receiver.

Another promise of M-code is the ability to use spot-beam transmissions from Block III satellites. This is where a high-gain antenna on the satellites aims the M-code signal at a specific region of the earth, with much greater received satellite power in that region. The received signal from the spot beam is expected to be around 20-dB more powerful than the conventional full-Earth coverage beam. This means that, in a given conflict region, military GPS receivers should be able to benefit from a large increase in jamming resistance.

Figure 3a. M-code signal compared to traditional L1 GPS signal.

Figure 3b. M-code signal compared to traditional L2 GPS signal.

Shortly after the GPS Advisory Board meeting in California, on the other side of the Atlantic a range of defense PNT technologies was also discussed.

International PNT experts gather in the UK

The International Navigation Conference (INC 2017) is now in its third year, and has been steadily growing in prominence. This year’s event, which took place Nov. 27-30, focused on the themes of resilient PNT, autonomy, and sensor and data fusion. As usual, there was a substantial defense presence.

I had the pleasure of chairing a few sessions, including a panel discussion on resilient PNT. The event began with a cross-government meeting, where representatives from across the UK government met to discuss PNT issues concerning defense and national security.

What I loved about this conference is the sheer diversity of PNT topics that were discussed. In the military domain, it wasn’t just the traditional subjects of GNSS, inertial, visual and signals-of-opportunity that were discussed. Also considered was cognitive navigation — how does a soldier’s brain work when in an unfamiliar battlefield? And how will quantum technology benefit defense PNT in the medium to long term?

The promise of quantum

Quantum technology has for some time been touted as the future of PNT: clocks so accurate that you’ll never need to worry about timing again. Inertial measurement units that have so little drift, you’ll never need anything else for navigation.

If you’re not familiar with quantum technology, let me explain. Quantum technology exploits science that cannot be explained by classical physics, such as Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics and Maxwell’s electromagnetism.

As atoms get colder, they have lower energy levels and move more slowly. Taking this argument all the way down to absolute zero, the atoms would stop moving. By using lasers to cool atoms to very near absolute zero, the atoms are essentially placed under precise control, and hence are sensitive to changes in the local magnetic and gravitational fields. What does this mean for navigation?

An excellent INC 2017 session on quantum navigation revealed some of the answers. Dr. Tim Freegarde of the University of Southampton gave the keynote “Navigator’s Introduction to Quantum Technologies,” which was followed by sessions on quantum/classical combined navigation, and quantum technology for performing gravity gradient map matching.

Quantum sensors rely on a phenomenon known as entanglement, where two physically separated systems are linked in such a way that a measurement of one affects the results of the other. Once atoms have been cooled, they can be made to travel in opposite directions around a loop, where the interference pattern generated allows rotation to be sensed.

But the atoms can also be sensitive to gravitational and magnetic fields, and frequency. So, amongst many other things, quantum technology allows for more accurate atomic clocks, and rotational and gravitational sensors.

A huge amount of money has been poured into quantum research in recent years and, whilst it’s clear there is still a long way to go, progress is certainly being made. At the UK National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Metrology, the focus is on achieving sensors that are useful, and not necessarily to look for the highest possible precision. This is essential if quantum sensors for PNT are to be adopted by governments and industry.

Cyber takes center stage

At the end of the conference, I had the pleasure of chairing a lively panel discussion on resilient PNT, where I put a number of questions to both the panel and the audience.

Coming back to satellite navigation, my first question was, “What is the greatest threat to GNSS over the next three years?” You may be forgiven for thinking that “jamming” or “spoofing” was the top answer because, no, the top answer was in fact “cyber attack”.

Figure 4. At the International Navigation Conference, the audience voted “cyber attack” as the greatest threat to GNSS.

But what exactly do we mean by “cyber attack”? The word “cyber” is a pretty loose word, which is often misused as a catch-all phrase to cover anything that’s not RF related. Let’s quote the NIST definition of cyber attack:

“An attack, via cyberspace, targeting an enterprise’s use of cyberspace for the purpose of disrupting, disabling, destroying or maliciously controlling a computing environment/infrastructure; or destroying the integrity of the data or stealing controlled information.”

How does this apply to military PNT? Well, a key theme from the conference was the trend towards more complex PNT systems. No longer do we have a simple GPS receiver, but an ever-increasing mix of different PNT sensors, and a system more comparable to a computer than a traditional GPS receiver.

What this means is that modern and future military PNT will be susceptible to the full range of cyber attacks currently associated with computing environments. Guy Buesnel from Spirent Communications gave an excellent keynote presentation where he covered this topic. Describing the “attack surface” for GNSS, he noted how many GNSS receivers currently run embedded operating systems such as VxWorks or Linux, and many support standard protocols such as TCP/IP and USB, all of which leaves them vulnerable to cyber attacks.

But let’s not despair. The good news is that there is an awful lot to learn from the computing domain. After all, when computers first became vulnerable to cyber attacks, we quickly learned to make use of virus checkers, firewalls and other such mechanisms available to us. And now the domain of cyber security gives us an arsenal of defensive measures to combat cyber-space risks.

I’ll finish by returning to the PNT Advisory Board meeting in California on Nov. 15, where Harold Martin, director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based PNT, said “GPS is more computer than radio… GPS receivers lack cyber resilience. This is a national issue.”

Don’t forget it.

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