Apr 24th 2017

Sky’s the Limit? Navigation System Technology Goes Old School for New Ideas

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It’s called the “2nd Offset” and it happened in the late 1990s during US military operations in Kosovo. The term refers to an evolution of airborne warfare which saw the use of new technological advancements to significantly increase accuracy; in this case, the global positioning system (GPS). Now both civilian and military navigation system technologies rely on GPS to guide travelers, identify targets and pinpoint locations. The problem? GPS isn’t perfect since it’s possible to jam satellite signals or encounter locations on earth where these signals simply don’t reach. As a result, agencies like DARPA, teams of scientific researchers and the US military are looking for new ways to solve a very old problem: finding our way around.

The GPS Evolution

As noted by PC World, original GPS receivers built in the 1970s were sometimes described as “50-pound manpacks,” making them impractical for everyday use. Two decades later, they were the size of current smartphones — now, they’re small enough that virtually every mobile device comes with an integrated GPS. Problem solved, right? Not quite. As GPS technology has developed, so have methods to block or confuse satellite signals — sometimes for law enforcement purposes and sometimes for criminal activity. It’s now possible to purchase stand-alone jamming gadgets which interfere with any radio signals in a certain radius, buy “spoofing” tools which override actual signals to provide a fake location, or leverage the old-fashioned method of wrapping GPS-enabled devices in a metal sleeve to block the satellite signal.

What’s Old Is New Again?

LN-100G Embedded INS/GPS

To enhance GPS functionality, other navigation system technologies have come a long way, allowing manufacturers to design standalone products which not only measure satellite position but also elevation and azimuth and then transmit this data wirelessly as required. But that’s just the beginning. DARPA has shifted resources into designing self-contained instruments which can track position for long periods without relying on any external data: In theory, so long as a user’s original position is known (via GPS or another method), a combination of high-precision clocks, gyroscopes and accelerometers could precisely mark out location independent of satellite services. Or consider the work of researchers from the University of California, Riverside, who developed a way to exploit “signals of opportunity” (SOP) to enable accurate navigation. Rather than the satellite signals, SOP technology uses existing communication signals such as cellular transmissions, radio and television waves or Wi-Fi signals to determine accurate position.

Showing how to use a marine sextant during a demonstration of celestial navigation (US Navy)

Military navigation tech is also changing: According to Naval Technology, the Naval Academy has now returned to teaching celestial navigation (CelNav) to ensure that even if GPS signals are interrupted, ships and sailors can still make their way home or locate their objective. And while the move back to CelNav speaks to the inherent weakness of GPS, there’s a case to be made for more long-term applications: Although stars do shift over time, they’re essentially fixed for the purposes of human navigation. Developing devices which use a combination of traditional satellite technology and can also “see” celestial way points could not only add an extra layer of location legitimacy but also improve overall precision. Roll in SOPs and self-contained instruments and there’s a huge market of opportunity to move beyond GPS and develop new ways to discover exactly where we are.

“The art of navigation has always advanced through the synthesis of the old and the new, and this has been shown to be true even in the age of GPS,” said Charles Volk, director of Advanced Technologies and Products at Northrop Grumman, on the unique combination of old and new developments in navigating.

GPS technology prompted a revolution in navigation technology. And true to Volk’s word, the sky’s the limit as both new initiatives and old-school methods empower location services.

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