Expert Advice: Remembering. And Resolving

August 1, 2010  - By 0 Comments

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By The Masked Engineer

In a few weeks, we will again observe the tragic anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. This will mark nearly a full decade since that terrible day that changed the lives of people around the world, forever. Many will remember. Many will mourn. Many will work to ensure that such an event never again threatens any nation. That is a good thing.

Few outside the position, navigation, and timing (PNT) community will also recall that the day before the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government released a landmark document that described the vulnerabilities of services provided by GPS to disruption, whether by attack or inadvertent interference. The Department of Transportation Volpe Center’s GPS vulnerability assessment recommended that services utilizing GPS-provided PNT seek alternative sources of these services. What decisions and actions have the findings and recommendations of this report promoted? The answer is most disturbing.

The U.S. government has sealed the fate of Loran-C and kept the decision on an enhanced Loran system (eLoran) in limbo for more than 10 years. The government has spent hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars studying the problem over and over again and either ignoring or classifying the results. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a direct outcome of the 9/11 attacks, has done nothing to address the need for a national backup other than study and re-study the problem and disregard the findings and warnings of world-class PNT experts.

On the positive side, a recent paper from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) attempts to address the problem by proposing to investigate alternative PNT (APNT). While the FAA does this under its Title 49 responsibility and authority to ensure the safety, security, and efficiency of our National Airspace System (NAS), and the alternatives it is looking at are certainly aviation-centric, it is admirable that somewhere in this government someone is finally moving forward to define and implement a real, operational PNT alternative to GNSS and its augmentations. [An abridgement of the FAA paper appeared in the July GPS World; the full paper is available here.]

I applaud the FAA’s actions and only hope that bureaucrats and bureaucratic processes don’t penalize it for its efforts.

But the question remains: When will a decision on the U.S. national PNT backup be made? The urgency of this issue can be highlighted by posing some simple questions about another current threat to the U.S. infrastructure and economy.

To what extent are GNSS-provided PNT services being used to identify the amount and movement of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico? What level of information exactness/integrity would be lost if GNSS-provided PNT services were not available?

Remember, not only navigation, but communications and surveillance rely on GNSS. See UK/Ireland General Lighthouse Authority’s report on GPS jammers and effects on maritime operations.

To what extent are GNSS-provided PNT services being utilized by cleanup crews and other impact-mitigation services? How would the efficiency of the cleanup/mitigation activities be impeded if GNSS-provided services were not available?

Finally, what is the opportunity cost of not having a national PNT backup? Why has this decision been so hard to make? One would intuit that it has encountered political obstacles, not scientific ones. What are they, exactly?

While the FAA is doing what it must to ensure a safe, secure, and efficient national airspace, what about the rest of us? The boaters, the truckers, the farmers, the power transmission people, the telecom providers, the cell-phone users? The list goes on and on.

It has been nine years. Why is this so hard?

As we take time on September 11 to remember where we were when we heard the news, to mourn those lost, and to do, each in our our way, something to ensure that such a thing never happens again, we should also take time on September 10 to thank the folks at the Volpe Center for their important efforts. And we should try, each in our own way, to do something to ensure that the effects of a loss of GNSS-provided services will be once and for all properly mitigated.


The masked engineer harbors strong convictions, matched by a desire to hold onto a day job.

GPS World staff

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