GPS Jamming: eLoran Offers Solution To A Dangerous Problem

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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Professor David Last from General Lighthouse Authorities tells TechWeekEurope why we need eLoran – the land-based alternative to GPS

GPS jamming is a serious problem: as transport systems increasingly rely on GPS satellites for navigation and location, but cheap devices can jam the GPS signal. The European Union has just tested the world’s first automatic backup system:  eLoran.

This month, on the THV Galatea sailing out of Harwich, the EU’s project ACCSEAS (Accessibility for Shipping, Efficiency Advantages and Sustainability) successfully completed a test in which the ship’s navigation system failed over automatically from GPS to  eLoran. The technique could enable ships and other vehicles to continue as normal if the GPS system is interrupted.

GPS jamming is an increasingly serious problem in the UK. “Any crude jammer will take out the highest grade civilian receivers,” professor David Last of the General Lighthouse Authorities, one of the partners of the ACCSEAS project, told TechWeekEurope.

Last thinks that GPS jamming as a tool for terrorism is a very real possibility, and hopes that UK will modernise its infrastructure in time.  eLoran is an extension of the LORAN technology developed by US scientists, based on the radio navigation system used by the British during World War II. It was demonstrated aboard earlier this month.

Dead Reckoning

Today, countless mobile devices rely on GPS navigation. However, most, if not all non-military GPS receivers can be easily jammed using a gadget that can be bought online for as little as £30. While this is not a problem for average users who temporarily lose the ability to locate themselves on Google Maps, in shipping and transport, losing a GPS signal can cost lives.

THV GalateaThe same jamming techniques can be used against the Russian GLONASS, EU’s upcoming Galileo network, and even the Chinese Beidou.

“Nobody knows how much GPS jamming is going on,” Last says. “As far as we can see, in the UK at the moment it’s mostly individuals using the so-called ‘personal privacy devices’. If you’re a white van driver and want to do a bit of ‘moonlighting’, but your company installs tracking systems in its fleet, you buy one of these things, plug it in the cigarette lighter socket, and it jams GPS in the vehicle and a certain distance around it.”

Meanwhile, criminals use multi-spectrum jammers to conduct hijackings, as they can block GPS, mobile and data networks, all at the same time.

To establish just how widespread jamming is, the UK government recently launched the 24 month Sentinel project, which has been picking up an increasing number of hits.

Any kind of GPS jamming poses a great danger to airports and shipping ports in the immediate vicinity. “The guy who simply wants to jam his own tracking system has no control over what parts of the critical national infrastructure that jammer takes out,” says Last.

However, the worst case scenario would emerge if the same equipment were used by terrorists. “What we haven’t seen yet in the civil domain is jamming from people that are technically savvy, and are really out to attack GPS-dependent systems. Is it coming? I suppose. You can’t run services like shipping on the assumption that the ‘bad guys’ will not use the tools available to them,” warns the professor, who frequently acts as an expert witness in forensic matters concerning GPS.

eLoran provides GPS jam backup

To test out the benefits of eLoran as an anti-jamming tool, ACCSEAS installed the system on a ship sailing the North Sea, and proceeded to deliberately jam the GPS signal. eLoran successfully fulfilled its mission and automatically took over to deliver navigation data when GPS was unavailable.

eLoran Monitor SystemTrials were conducted between 28 February and 1 March – the first time that an automatic and seamless solution had been demonstrated in a real-world scenario.

eLoran technology is based on longwave radio signals and is completely independent from GPS. It doesn’t require a satellite connection at all – instead, it relies on land-based radio beacons, much like cellular connections. There are currently nine prototype eLoran transmitters with an active range of about a thousand kilometres, located around North West Europe, even though just a handful of vessels have receivers.

“It’s a complete plug-and-play replacement for GPS. If you switch on the receiver, you would pick up the signals from Russia and probably even the Middle East,” Last tells us. The system can also provide up-to-nanosecond timing data for the telecoms sector, just like GPS does.

LORAN was initially a US development. However, in 2009, the United States Coast Guard deemed the technology obsolete, while the Europeans modernised it and now look forward to implementing it across the EU shipping channels, as eLoran.

“GPS and other satellite navigation systems are deeply embedded in several critical sectors such as telecommunications, power distribution and high frequency financial trading, in addition to transport,” adds Martyn Thomas, vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

“The dangerous over reliance on GPS makes it a potential common point of failure for very many systems, so any technology that can provide resilience to these systems should be welcomed across the board.”

By 2014, eLoran capability is expected in seven major ports along the East Coast of the UK, with all major port coverage expected by 2019.

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