Almost half a century ago, the US Department of Defense started working on an experimental project to launch a series of satellites into space to make it possible to pinpoint any location on Earth.
Fast-forward 47 years, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) is everywhere and in everything from the activity-tracking applications in our smartphones to the navigation systems found in airplanes.
Ahead of receiving the £1 million Queen Elizabeth Award for Engineering last week, the chief architect of GPS, Bradford Parkinson, told ZDNet that making the tool accessible to all was part of his plan from the earliest stages of the project.
And it became part of the US government’s plan, too: in 1983, the Reagan administration declared that it would effectively guarantee and provide GPS for both military and civilian purposes.
“President Reagan established that reliable knowledge of your position is something that the government should provide as much as lighthouses for ships or navigation lights for planes,” said Parkinson. “And here we are: now the whole world takes GPS for granted.”
Reagan couldn’t predict, at the time, that engineers would develop chips cheap and sophisticated enough to power more than five billion smartphones across the world, all fitted with GPS and contributing to a global dependence on the technology.
And now, Parkinson argues that the technology has to be protected from its biggest threat: jamming.
Jamming happens when too much noise is broadcast by third parties on the same frequencies used by satellites to send data to receivers on the ground, which in turn calculate their location by determining their distance from the satellite.
By sending radio signals on those frequencies, or on frequencies neighboring those used by technology, jamming effectively shuts down GPS navigation.
“We have to protect these frequencies,” said Parkinson. “There are several billion people worldwide depending on them – and I don’t think many are very good at reading a map if their GPS fails them.”
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is well aware of the issue. It has taken steps to punish the use of GPS jammers, which are small devices that send out radio signals on the same frequencies as GPS to override or distort satellite signals.
“The worst threat of all,” says Parkinson, “is when your national authority licenses ground transmitters to operate next to GPS frequencies. I have been fighting this problem for nine years now.
“The FCC could license nearby frequencies to the point that it would degrade GPS. No one believes me, but they are so close. To allow it would be to deliberately allow a licence to a jam and make it legal.”
And yet, there is much to lose from a failure of GPS signal, and not only for consumers relying on Google Maps for their morning commute. The UK Space Agency, for example, estimated that a five-day GPS outage could cost the UK economy more than £5 billion ($6.5 billion).
In Southern California, the technology is used to study the movement of tectonic plates and assess the likelihood of earthquakes. GPS is used for precision agriculture, to map fields and increase productivity while better spreading the use of fertilizers. And of course, emergency services and firefighters are increasingly reliant on GPS-powered navigation tools.
In other words, protecting GPS frequencies in the modern world is critical. For that reason, the US Department of Transportation last year published an assessment on “GPS adjacent band compatibility, an analysis of the frequencies neighboring GPS spectrum and of whether they should be used for commercial purposes.
Looking at the future, however, Parkinson is not all that optimistic; and one innovation that has been playing on his mind is GPS-controlled drones.
From disrupting the flights of 100,000 passengers in Gatwick last year to grounding 14 firefighting airplanes during the Maria fire in California last month, drones’ ability to wreak chaos no longer has to be demonstrated.
And with Amazon now planning to deploy a fleet of drones to deliver packages straight to our doors, it is likely that more devices will be seen flying around sooner rather than later.
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It’s easy to see why the prospect of GPS signals getting jammed when drones are in the vicinity of airports or emergency services is “not a very good idea”, in the words of Parkinson.
For him, the solution is pretty straight-forward. “Have companies stick to the license they’ve got”, he said. “And if you really love them, find them another frequency band. But don’t jam the GPS one.”