What’s all the fuss about global navigation satellite systems?

The ability to know your exact location and also the precise time at that location has become increasingly important to those who rely on a range of technologies that in turn rely on satellite systems to facilitate navigation, monitoring, and tracking. For example commercial operations are increasingly reliant on satellite aided systems to ensure that goods get to where they are supposed to. When the U.S. Air Force successfully launched new GPS satellites via an Atlas V rocket this was reported extensively in China.(1) China happens to be one of several countries that is now vying for new business in this important area.

However, it is  perhaps prudent to consider the fact that the US GPS network, that most of us increasingly rely on for navigation, is primarily a military system owned and developed by the US Air Force and paid for by the Pentagon and was not originally conceived as having a civilian role. It is one of the systems that that is known to be used to assist military hardware, such as UAVs, to pinpoint targets. The civilian signal that most of us use with our SATNAVS and increasingly on our smartphones is freely accessible to anyone with suitable equipment but that service can just as easily be reduced or taken away. the loss of this service might mean I am embarrassed to arrive 10 minutes late for a meeting until I can find the information I need via an electronic street map but to a motorcycle paramedic on the way to the scene of an accident the service can mean the difference between life and death.

It is realised that there has been an exponential increase in reliance on the global positioning system to work reliably and in recent years the Pentagon have come under increasing pressure from the multi-agency National Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board and others to agree that they will not reduce the accuracy, degrade, or switch off civilian access to the system. The main arguments are that to do so could potentially endanger life and disrupt commercial activities as this would have a global economic impact that is somewhat difficult to calculate but potentially catastrophic.   Although not life threatening to the persons concerned disruption of the service would also interfere with electronic monitoring systems such as those in security industries or those increasingly used in the criminal justice system to track offenders resulting in a loss of confidence in their use. Such systems have in any case only been viable since 2000 when, in a popular move, President Clinton ordered that the US military switch off selective availability (SA) thus substantially  increasing accuracy.

Analysts believe that it is highly unlikely that the GPS signal would be used to thwart threats to US or their allies national security as the fallout from such action would be potentially too unpredictable and harmful.  GPS however remains a potentially powerful weapon that continues to attract public interest not least as a tangible benefit resulting from a considerable investment in the space programme but also as a very real reminder of the US’s reach beyond its borders as a global power. Any hint therefore that the service might be used in a different way without the involement of democratic process is therefore of concern. President Bush, commenting on US GPS policy in 2004, said that the US would ‘improve capabilities to deny hostile use of [satnav], without unduly disrupting civil and commercial access to [GPS] outside an area of military operations, or for homeland security purposes…’ presenting the possibility that in certain circumstances SA might be used defensively or offensively to counter perceived ‘threats’. However, it would be naive to assume that those with hostile intent who are sophisticated enough to make effective use of GPS to achieve their aims would not also have access to fairly advanced technical resources that could be used to overcome any temporary limitations and quite possibly used against civilian populations by hostile groups seeking to cause disruption and gain publicity.

Not surprisingly other countries who have the necessary access to the technology to do so have been keen to develop their own systems. These countries are very clear that they do not want to rely too heavily on what is essentially a US military system that they realise could well be used strategically to disrupt the activities of others not acting in what the US may at any time to consider its interests (either military economic or political). The Russian military have developed GLONASS as have the military in China who have their own independent satellite navigation and positioning systems and a growing number of countries that prefer not to use the US system such as Pakistan, Thailand, China, Laos and Brunei use the Chinese system, for a variety of reasons, not just cost but also as a result of a web of treaties and understandings. It may be for example that one country’s military may well be wary of buying into a system that could well mean that the US can use this technology in combination with others in order to monitor and map over time the movements of their vehicles and personnel. They might suspect that the same system that is used to remotely to pilot drones towards selected targets could also be turned against them. The global navigation satellite systems can therefore be used.

The EU GALILEO global navigation satellite system (part funded by China) is a bit different from other systems as it is not only under full civilian control (we hope it will not be used to gather data on users without their knowledge) but also accurate to within a few centimeters whereas the US GPS network is only accurate within a few meters. The Galileo system is compatible with both the US and Russian systems but importantly it will enable a far wider range of applications, such as use with driverless cars, improved air traffic control systems, and in tests has proven more accurate than other systems that tend to struggle to maintain accuracy in urban areas. The EU system is even able to pinpoint the precise location of individuals within buildings if wearing suitable devices opening up new possibilities for those developing monitoring technologies.

1. http://www.chinatopix.com/articles/57948/20150716/us-air-force-successfully-launches-new-gps-satellites-via-atlas-v-rocket.htm#ixzz3gKjgrMjp

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