Because your phone’s GPS is in desperate need of a major overhaul

Most modern technology, including smartphones, works with GPS. But the system may be more vulnerable to failure than you think. The US does not have a backup geolocation technology, which means that outages or interference could be catastrophic. Russia has threatened to destroy GPS satellites and recently faulty GPS signals temporarily shut down a Dallas airport.

Thankfully, companies are stepping in to help protect GPS. NextNav recently signed a deal to provide a new technology called TerraPoiNT that acts as a backup for GPS, using existing LTE and 5G networks. “TerraPoiNT’s signal is over 100,000 times stronger than GPS and its signal encryption makes it more resistant to jamming and spoofing,” said Ganesh Pattabiraman, CEO of NextNav, in an interview with Digital Trends. It’s an intriguing statistic and a taste of how we can (and should) safeguard GPS.

Why GPS is so important and so fragile

GPS map data from an Apple Watch Ultra and Apple Watch Series 8 shown on a 2022 iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone SE. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

GPS provides positioning, navigation, timing and tracking services for mobile phones. Its wide availability has made it a global utility that is an integral part of industries and infrastructure, ranging from the power grid to 911 emergency services to financial transactions. But, said Pattabiraman, the system is “incredibly vulnerable” to interference, including jamming and spoofing.

Sam Brown, a professional radio engineer who runs a radio frequency blog at OneSDR, said in an interview that GPS communication receivers are often disrupted using cheap and easy-to-obtain jammers.

“A jammer will emit a signal that interferes with signal reception and as a result, the GPS receiver will be unable to provide location information,” he added.

In one recent example, problems with GPS signals led to flights being grounded at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The problem was traced to a mysterious source of interference and shut down the airport for two days.

Photo of Newark airport in the early morning.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

Potential foreign interference is another problem. Russia has boasted that it can eliminate the satellites that provide our GPS.

“An incident like a major solar flare or damage to commercial satellites could potentially shut down many essential services that we rely on every single day,” said Pattabiraman. “That’s why the US federal government has recognized the importance of implementing alternative PNT technologies to ensure GPS resilience, including through an executive order to “engage the public and private sectors to identify and promote the responsible use of PNT services “.

Alex Damato, interim executive director of the GPS Innovation Alliance, an industry group, said in an interview that his organization maintains a technology-neutral stance when it comes to GPS backup solutions.

However, he said, GPSIA agrees that “the best strategy for achieving a resilient PNT service is to pursue multiple technologies to foster diversity in PNT functions.” It is also essential that backup solutions are able to offer equivalent capacity and a level of performance equal to GPS technologies and are driven by the PNT requirements of each industry sector rather than government mandates.

A problem that has been going on for decades

Lockheed Martin GPS-III - in orbit
Lockheed Martin

Part of the problems with GPS stem from its design as a Cold War relic. GPS was designed for military use in conflict areas where civilian networks weren’t available: firing rockets a thousand miles through the upper atmosphere or helping carrier-laden airplanes cross the ocean, he said in a ‘interview Tim Sylvester, founder and CEO of Integrated Roadways. It was never intended to help guide pedestrians and vehicles in quiet urban areas.

“This discrepancy in design versus use means that GPS has several significant flaws, such as low accuracy and high latency,” Sylvester said. These challenges are a product of GPS signals from satellites thousands of miles away, and the disadvantages are a consequence of physics that cannot be solved.

GPS has its drawbacks when it comes to a new generation of self-driving cars. GPS’s low accuracy means you can’t use it effectively to know which lane someone is in, which is a big problem when driving, and high latency means that your location information gets worse when you’re moving fast, which it’s also a big deal while driving, Sylvester said. Since GPS comes from thousands of miles away, in urban areas with lots of tall buildings, the accuracy is even worse because tall buildings block inexactly positioned satellites from transmitting past the buildings.

New generation Apple CarPlay interface.

“These limitations are in stark contrast to using GPS for connected and autonomous vehicles, which requires high accuracy, low latency and reliable operation in dense urban areas given how dense urban areas are where all the traffic is,” he said. stated Sylvester. “As newspapers have been replaced by online news, GPS has been a great stepping stone, but it’s time to move beyond that. In fact, most apps already ignore GPS and silently replace it with alternatives like Bluetooth, but this is usually hidden from the user because what the user cares about is good service, not how they get it.

The impending wave of autonomous vehicles may require a better tracking system. Sylvester said the most promising alternative to GPS for connected and autonomous vehicles is called APNT. PNT stands for “Position, Navigation, Telemetry”. Depending on who you ask, the “A” can stand for assisted, augmented, insured, alternative, or other near-synonymous terms.

APNT is integrated into local infrastructure, including cellular masts, Bluetooth beacons, Wi-Fi, or other “alternative” means to position, navigate, and receive vehicle telemetry.

“These methods have been cobbled together over the past 15 years using a combination of smartphone components and readily available communication methods, and while they are great for tourists wandering Market Street or Times Square trying to track down a sandwich that costs less than $ 30, their ad hoc nature means they can’t be relied on for autonomy,” Sylvester said.

Integrated Roadways has developed Smart Pavement, which integrates APNT capabilities directly into the road, using high-precision in-road sensors and supported by an ultra-low latency perimeter network, “so that any road upgraded with Smart Pavement has all the APNT capabilities necessary for connected and autonomous vehicles integrated into the roadway and designed from the ground up as a reliable, safe, secure, industrial-grade network that delivers the capabilities required by next-generation mobility needs,” said Sylvester

Where do we go after the GPS?

Person with iPhone 14 looking for emergency SOS satellite.

NextNav’s system isn’t the only option as a GPS backup. Max Perez, vice president of research and security solutions at ColdQuanta, said in an interview that Quantum Positioning Systems (QPS) have the potential to serve as an alternative to GPS. Quantum properties power the positioning system, and unlike GPS, QPS doesn’t require continuous calibration with external signals to function.

“A QPS only needs to know its starting point to function and is able to calculate how fast it has traveled, for how long and in what direction to determine its current location,” Perez said. “Quantum Positioning Systems (QPS) would augment GPS worldwide as it offers greatly improved navigational safety. Use cases for QPS include navigation for aircraft, submarines, autonomous cars, and more. The advantages of QPS over GPS include accuracy, no satellite dependency, indoor use, and less vulnerability to hacking.

Damato said the GPS industry is innovating rapidly, developing solutions that make GPS more accurate and resilient. These solutions include the GPS receivers, the satellites that broadcast these GPS signals, and the ground control segment that tracks and monitors GPS performance.

“A major modernization of the GPS constellation is well underway and, when completed, will deliver dozens of new satellites providing significantly increased accuracy and enhanced anti-jamming capabilities,” he added.

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