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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Going where no GPS has gone before

November 21st, 2011 by Susan Smith

In November a gathering of 150 GPS engineers convened in Stanford at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center to discuss the $110 billion GPS market for military and commercial aviation systems, consumer mapping services in cars and automated agricultural machines, among other related industries at the fifth annual Stanford University symposium on Position, Navigation and Time.

A big topic on the table is that GPS is no longer the only navigation and tracking system on the planet any more. According to a November article in Wired, there are four things threatening the future of GPS:

  • Next-generation mobile broadband services angling for a piece of the electromagnetic spectrum relied upon by GPS
  • Cheap GPS jammers flooding the highways, thanks to consumers worried about invasive police and employers surveillance;
  • Cosmic events, like solar storms
  • Future location technology that will ultimately push those services to places where GPS hasn’t been able to go.

What’s on the horizon is the new mobile broadband company, Lightsquared, that has been said to threaten GPS signals with interference from a neighboring spectrum. Lightsquared appears at first like it will solve a lot of problems to broadband, by offering cable – like bandwidth to mobile customers through LTE, a next generation wireless service. What’s more, the Obama administration has endorsed Lightsquared – which resides in the same spectrum that runs GPS, which is lower power and gets interference easily.

Appealing about Lightsquared is that its signals can penetrate buildings, rugged mountain terrain and dense urban canyons where GPS can’t go.

Obviously, the military is very interested in this technology, as they were the first to use and introduce GPS some years ago.

At the symposium, Lightsquared declared that they had made significant progress in addressing interference concerns and showed some tests they had run.

According to Lightsquared’ s Martin Harriman’s statement – “The GPS interference issue can be solved and is not – as the GPS industry has led the public to believe – an unsolvable physics problems. The entire debate has turned into from whether there is a solution to who pays for it. And that’s a conversation we’re willing to have.”

In the GPS camp, the father of GPS and Stanford engineering professor, Dr. Brad Parkinson, voiced his concerns that the Lightsquared bandwidth will eclipse GPS at low levels. He pointed out that Light squared plans to increase the strength of its signal, with the approval of the FCC, from 1.5kW to 15kW. This strength has not been tested, yet already consumer GPS jammers  are sold online illegally, and consumers can buy these to jam navigation systems not only on roads but at airports.

In spite of the concern about Lightsquared, the company has entered into various collaborations, one of which is with the global device maker PCTEL, a company that has developed an antenna to allow existing high precision users to retrofit their GPS devices for compatibility with Lightsquared’s network.

Recently, British satellite provider, Inmarsat, which has a spectrum sharing agreement with Lightsquared, announced that this technology boosted their revenue in the third quarter as its core shipping business was hit by a shift to lower-revenue broadband terminals.

Inmarsat, provider of communications to ships, aircraft and the military, reported an 18.4 percent rise in third quarter earnings to $224.4 million in its global business on 22 percent higher revenue of $245.2 million.

Lightsquared stated that their current proposal to move their spectrum further away from GPS’s spectrum will cost LightSquared $100 million and “solves the interference problem for mass consumer and industrial GPS devices.”

They also suggest that they have solutions under development that will gain them complete compatibility with GPS. In a magnanimous move, LightSquared has also committed $50 million toward replacing/retrofitting government devices that experience interference.

A related but not so controversial topic is how sun spots increase the effects of interference in the ionosphere, and degrade GPS signals, especially in equatorial regions. Todd Walter, former student of Parkinson and one of the key designers of Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), proposed some suggestions to mitigate the effects of sun spots, including layering GPS with new satellite tracking systems that are ready for use in Europe and China, and installing new base stations in the Southern hemisphere for WAAS.

Boeing has come up with another solution: a new non-GPS system capable of penetrating indoors, where low powered GPS signals are unable to go. According to Boeing Timing and Location (BTL)’s Dave Whelan, what Boeing has done is reboot the an Iridium low orbit satellite network, and uploaded new firmware on 71 satellites to deliver location services within 100 m accuracy.

The signals from this technology can penetrate buildings, mountain areas and dense urban canyons which regular GPS signals cannot do. The network is not high precision, but may offer a possible alternative to Lightsquared’s imposing spectrum.

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Category: GPS

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