GPS and LORAN-E

 

 

GPS and LORAN-E

Forty-some years ago the US military worked a project to aid in navigation, which has become known to all of us as “GPS” (Global Positioning System). Initially developed for military use, the system has since been opened up for commercial and civilian usage as well.  The basic premise of GPS involves reception of electronic radio signals from a network of satellites, by a navigation receiver here on Earth, whether it be on land, sea, or in the air; world-wide.

A forerunner to the GPS navigation system, called LORAN-C had already been developed, in the WWII era but had some short comings due to land-based signal towers.  If a navigator was too far away from the land-based tower, the signal was lost.  Therefore, LORAN-C, as the system was known, didn’t help a ship or plane in the middle of the ocean, or in a geographic area which was not well populated with radio towers to transmit the signals.  LORAN is an acronym for “LOng RAnge Navigation”, and was planned to be phased out as the end of the 20th century drew to a close, and was decommissioned in 2010.

Domestically, the civilian population takes GPS for granted.  We’re using it for everything from tracking our family pet, to checking-in on Face Book, and guiding us on vacation.  The military has obviously found valuable uses as well.  The manufacturing cost of a GPS receiver has been reduced to a level whereby the GPS chip is installed in the phone of almost everybody in the country.  That brings us to today, with GPS dependencies never fathomed by the developers.

GPS is the acronym for a system developed by the US military.  Other countries such as Russia, the European Union, China, India and Japan, have developed their own similar networks, known by different names.  These systems are all based upon the same basic principle of receiving radio signals from outer space.  The concept is referred to as PNT (Position Navigation and Timing).  The systems belong to a family commonly referred to as GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems).

 

 

GPS systems work, there’s no doubt about it.  But……  They’re not infallible.

The radio signals used by GPS-type receivers, come from satellites, forming a constellation-network in space, high over our heads.  Initially, the satellites were projected to have a life expectancy of 7-1/2 years +/-.  There exists today, a network of some 30+ satellites, the oldest of which was launched in 1990.  Nineteen others in the network are also past their life expectancy.  They run on solar power, and focus their valuable (25 watt) signals toward Earth, into a soupy mixture of background interference, made up of solar radiation, and ground clutter.  The signals are weak and must be filtered out of the background.  Our equipment manages to do so efficiently, in a manner that is transparent to you and me.  Our everyday dependency on this amazing system continues to grow, and to be taken for granted, as if it was simply “always there”.  Every day, more and more applications are developed with dependencies on GPS.

Lately however, GPS signals have been proven to be vulnerable not only to solar-flare-radiation, but  to man-made radio signals known as “spoofing”.  You may recall a news item a wile back, whereby one of the US drones landed on the “wrong side of the fence” in Iran.  This was due to a deliberate effort of the “other-guys” to interfere with the GPS signals which guided the drone…..    they “spoofed” it.

You don’t have to be a terrorist to dabble in electronic sabotage.  In New Jersey, a truck driver plugged a $20 “privacy-protection” device into the dashboard of his truck.  He was attempting to prevent the boss from tracking his movements.  Unfortunately, his little jammer disrupted the GPS-based navigation system at nearby Newark Airport.  And, in another recent incident, a professor from the University of Texas and his grad students were able to alter the guidance of an auto-pilot system in a yacht, causing he crew to follow a different course than they believed they were on.

 

The shortcomings of GPS are recognized and undisputed.  The question becomes:  “What are we going to do about it?”

South Korea has been dealing with GPS interference from North Korea for quite some time.  Their solution has been to adopt a refined version of LORAN-C, known as LORAN-E.  This newer version of LORAN, developed in 2006, is more powerful than it’s predecessor.  It operates on different frequencies and carries an additional data signal, making it almost un-jam-able”.

Europe, Great Britain, Russia, India, S. Korea, China……….     They have all adopted the new LORAN-E technology as a compliment to their versions of GPS.  The intent is to use both systems simultaneously; each operates independently, and compliments the other, forming a more fool-proof navigation system.  All of these countries have begun the enhancements.  The US had also begun converting the old LORAN-C towers to the new “E” versions, until a budget cut in 2012 took all the funding and the project was stopped.

 

But the good news:

So, you ask, “Why don’t we just do it?”  And, the answer is:  They’re working in it.  The DOD (Dept. of Defense), the DOT (Dept. of Transportation) and DHS (Dept. of Homeland Security) have all expressed interest.  But it’s a budget thing; whose pocket will the funding come from?  Now, some groups in the private sector have also proposed a plan.

Where we stand: 

The problem (threat) has been identified and defined, and a solution has been proposed.  All we have to do is implement the plan.  The USA appears to be slow to react when compared to other countries around the world, but pressure is building from several sectors who are very interested in LORAN-E as a compliment to GPS.  It’s a matter of time.  But, the clock is ticking.  Let’s hope it doesn’t take a disaster to draw enough attention to this exposure for our government to take action.

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