What does ION GNSS+ reveal about the GNSS industry?

September 21, 2016  - By

Back again in Portland, Oregon, the 2016 Institute of Navigation’s ION GNSS+ conference was a great opportunity for the GNSS community to catch up on what’s been cooking in the industry, and of course who’s been doing what in the research community.

The attendees eagerly took to a wide range of technical paper presentation sessions, and from time to time came to take a look at what industry had to offer on the exhibit floor. Lots of engaging research reports, from work undertaken over the last year by academia, again drew a significant number of attendees from around the world.

On the other hand, industry continued the trend to go to trade shows in application sectors and pull back somewhat from ION GNSS+ as a place to look for product sales. So the number of companies on the ION show floor remained around the same or maybe a little less than in the previous few years. Nevertheless, the quality of the companies exhibiting remained high and there were some interesting newcomers.

A number of major GNSS receiver manufactures have pulled back from ION, so there were only two established U.S. companies and two new U.S. entrants at the show. On the other hand, GNSS simulation companies were at ION in force — eight all told, or twice as many as the receiver manufacturers present who have been their historic customers. But the trend in GNSS simulation now appears to be to move down stream towards the needs of integrators and systems outfits — in segments such as automotive, UAV and agriculture — with lower cost, very capable simulators.

Receiver makers roll out new tech

As a consequence, the NovAtel and Septentrio booths got a lot of attendee traffic, while BDStar (Unicore receivers and Harxon antennas) and ComNav also had a number of visitors to their booths. As usual, NavTech, who represent almost all the manufacturers, also had a busy exhibit.

OEM7600 dual-frequency receiver.

OEM7600 dual-frequency receiver.

NovAtel chose to launch its OEM-7 series of GNSS receivers and a newly designed VEXXIS high-precision antenna at ION GNSS+, which is a somewhat refreshing return to the ION GNSS+ launch platform we used to see in the past. A new highly integrated ASIC at the heart of this receiver now provides, amongst other features, 555 channels, L-band support, inertial SPAN capability and an intriguing “Interference Toolbox”. The toolbox enables integrators to localize interference effects over a wide band — especially helpful for densely packed electronics, which you might expect in a UAV, for instance.

Interference Toolbox Screenshot.

Interference Toolbox Screenshot.

Septentrio didn’t have a whole lot of new product announcements, but as usual the company has been working hard at improving existing capabilities on its receivers. The AsteRx4 receiver that uses a new ASIC has been available for a while, but it too boasts 544 channels — perhaps too many to actually be used in practice — robust heading, centimeter-level RTK and decimeter-level PPP (with TerraStar and Veripos corrections) with dual L-band channels, and an improved suite of advanced interference mitigation (AIM+) capabilities. This helps detection and removal of the effects of “chirp jamming” from low-power “cigarette-lighter” jammers — using signal analysis and adjustment of adaptive notch filters.

Septentrio did announce a new PolaRx5TR packaged time-and-frequency transfer receiver and a contract with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for reference stations and timing. A report by UNAVCO also found its way into my inbox, which related comparative testing of the PolaRx5 and other manufacturers’ receivers in connection with a UNAVCO RFP – Septentrio did O.K. and was selected as a preferred vendor, which no doubt influenced the JPL award and added to an already good first half year for the company.

The Septentrio PolaRX5TR.

The Septentrio PolaRX5TR.

BDStar had a range of GPS, GLONASS, Beidou receivers from its subsidiary Unicorecomm, along with an impressive selection of antennas from Harxon, another of its Chinese subsidiaries. Both product lines have done very well in the Chinese market, and BDStar would like to sell more in North America.

ComNav also displayed a similar range of GNSS receivers and antennas, with new versions of both since last year, and a strong desire to break through into the US market.

Simulators a big presence

Simulator companies at ION included the more established Spirent, Spectracom, CAST, IFEN and Rohde & Schwarz — we could even now consider RaceLogic/LabSat as a record-and-playback fixture in the market. But in the wings and making lots of waves at the show were Syntony from France and Skydel from Montreal, Canada.

Spirent brought its usual large-scale GNSS simulators to ION, but also featured an interference detection and software analysis suite, a 16-bit high-fidelity record/playback unit, along with a new multi-frequency simulator aimed at downstream integrators. The GSS200D Detector finds interference effects and is able to relate them to the threats in the environment around a receiver. The object is to help debug an installation by finding internal interferers. The analysis tools can also help differentiate between regular equipment interference and potential external jammers.

Spirent's new GSS200D detector.

Spirent’s new GSS200D detector.

Spirent also displayed a record/playback unit that has 16-bit playback capability, enabling a user to record and review a particular interference event, and then feed their new commercial simulator in order to replicate the interference. So a passing isolated jamming event can be analyzed in detail. Multiple reruns are possible to confirm the effect on the target system, and following equipment modifications, prove that the problem has indeed been neutralized.

Spirent analysis tools.

Spirent analysis tools.

RaceLogic introduced its new wideband LabSat 3 record/playback system for GPS L1, GLONASS L1, Galileo E1, BeiDou B1, QZSS and SBAS. Recording live signals for any or all of these signals then allows later playback of a canned sample for equipment debugging on the bench. The LabSat product line has been around for some time, and this addition increases the debug capability for downstream users at an affordable price in a very portable format. When used with the RaceLogic SatGen software system, the user has access to a powerful toolset for testing new GNSS devices.


LabSat 3 and SatGen test set-up.

Spectrcom displayed its multi-frequency, multi-constellation simulator and also featured a GNSS vulnerability test system for interference detection and system debugging. The company’s approach requires two simulators, both synchronized by an atomic clock, allowing a PC-based Test Scenario Control to generate reproducible interference effects for debugging.

CAST Navigation is already moving downstream quite quickly with its CAST-SGX handheld GNSS simulator. With a touchscreen display, this simplified L1 GPS simulator (with P-code option) is ideal for test-bench debugging.

Rohde & Schwarz had its usual array of high-end test equipment, with a test set-up aimed at demonstrating testing of a Wi-Fi indoor location application on a smartphone.


IFEN showed up with a completely re-engineered simulator with huge frequency/channel capacity. The Titan GNSS Simulator houses up to 8 RFSIM modules, each of which carries 32 configurable satellite signals. A fully configured Titan chassis can therefore provide 256 channels of GPS L1/L2/L5, GLONASS G1/G2/G3, Galileo E1/E5/E6, Beidou B1/B2/B3, IRNSS L5 and S-band, QZSS L1/L2/L5/LEX and all current L1/L5 SBAS signals. Titan also has up to four independent RF outputs.

IFEN Titan GNSS Simulator.

IFEN Titan GNSS Simulator.

Skydel is one of the newcomers in GNSS simulation, but has made significant inroads first appearing last year at ION. Skydel now boasts a full-up, reconfigurable GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, Beidou “software” simulator which the company claims to sell at a 1/3 the price of a conventional hardware simulator. And during the year, Skydel teamed up with Talen-X in Ohio, who have embedded Skydel software-defined in a U.S.-sourced GPS/GLONASS/Galileo/Beidou simulator that can include GPS P/Y and M-code.

Broadsim from Talen-X powered by Skydel.

Broadsim from Talen-X powered by Skydel.

Syntony rises high by going under (the ground)

The noise in simulation at ION was, however, created by Syntony from Toulouse in France. Syntony recently won a 15-simulator order from OneWeb — the outfit that plans to launch a 640 internet connectivity satellite constellation through 2020. With funding secured from Virgin Group and Qualcomm in 2015, initial satellite build is underway at Airbus Defence and Space, launch services are contracted with Arianespace to provide 21 multi-sat launches on Soyuz beginning in 2017 with optional launch service with Virgin Galactic. So Syntony is likely going to be able to build, deliver and be paid for its 15 simulators, which will be used for testing GPS capability that is integrated into each comms satellite.

Syntony 128-channel GNSS Simulator "Constellator."

Syntony 128-channel GNSS Simulator “Constellator.”

Syntony’s simulator is also software-defined and is reconfigurable. The software-defined heart of this system comes from a Syntony GPS/Galileo receiver, and a version of this receiver has now been sold for use in the Airbus Adeline re-usable space module. This receiver is a “multi-antenna receiver” in order to avoid signal or tracking loss while switching between antennas during the Safran launcher rotation. The catch here is that Syntony must develop this receiver to Airbus critical airborne software=qualification standards — no mean feat! Syntony is also providing a version of its Constellator simulator for testing this multi-antenna input receiver.

An ECHO record/playback system is also available, which includes high-fidelity 16-bit RF outputs.

Finally, Syntony was able to capture a proof-of-concept location infrastructure project for Stockholm, Sweden’s, underground metro. The metro stations are pretty deep underground, as they have been dug under the sea in and around Stockholm, and no one had been able to come up with a system that would enable emergency 911 calls with associated essential localized position information to be carried from within the stations. Syntony was able to provide a GPS-like signal infrastructure at the stations which is compatible with GPS-enabled smartphones. It worked well, and Syntony verified that there was no radiation of the signal outside any of the entrances to the test station — so no GPS interference. It actually worked so well that Syntony got the contract to equip all 50 metro stations in Stockholm, and the Syntony is now working to spread its system around the metros of all major cities, worldwide.

Defining the Galileo PRS signal…

Then I came across Fraunhofer towards the end of the show, and their posters about a Galileo PRS (Public Regulated Service) receiver. Now, we know that there has been significant discussion between the different security services of countries across the European Union, and its taken a lot of time to get to a definition of the PRS signal and who has access. So it wasn’t surprising that there was no hardware on the Fraunhofer booth; what’s surprising is that there was any mention of such a receiver being available and telling attendees at a conference in the U.S. that it’s available.

I talked to a couple of people at their booth, and indeed there is such a receiver, but they really couldn’t tell me anything about it because telling is strictly verboten! Another strange anomaly of the Galileo program — the participants seem to want to let the U.S. know that they have the capability for a special access service, and a receiver is available to work with it, but they can’t tell us anything about it. I guess the idea may be to rattle the cage of the U.S. P-code/M-code guys, and let them know Galileo has caught up at last… But Fraunhofer has an idea of how to make things available to, well, err …. to somebody. They have a concept to have cellphone users who want PRS to connect with their cloud receiver, and they will decode and provide PRS position back over the internet. That solves the whole security thing…. OK, that should do it.

Where inertial stands

I also made the rounds of the inertial and inertial/GPS guys at the show, and there were quite a few. From Northrop Grumman and Systron Donner and their mil-spec high-end FOG and RLG and Quartz MEMS tube-shaped inertial units — could they be for shells or missiles? — to Silicon Sensing’s MEMS accels and gyros and their move out of automotive and towards high-precision performance, to Sensonor’s high-performance commercial MEMS/GNSS units, there were actually only a few of the inertial-aiding outfits present. Yet everything we hear is that for anything that moves, we really should use integrated inertial/GNSS, and UAVs especially want lots of that! So this part of the business looks to be quite healthy too…

Now another ION GNSS+ conference has come and gone — and I was reminded that maybe I’ve actually been to 95 percent of the ION September conferences over the last 30 years. And as I write, the last of the late Friday paper sessions are crawling to a close.

ION still remains a good place to come and learn, a place to meet industry colleagues and a place to see a little of what industry is up to. Definitely worth the trip, and don’t forget your business cards next year.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

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About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).