Locata, A New Constellation: ICD and Live Demos at ION-GNSS 2011

September 1, 2011  - By 0 Comments

locatasite

“GPS can no longer evolve fast enough. Satellite-based systems cannot maintain the speed of development now required for the hyper-fast evolutionary pace of modern applications and devices. For positioning for the future, it has become exceedingly clear that GPS now needs a terrestrial component.” — from a Locata Corporation prospectus

A large number of companies and engineers have thrown billions of dollars at trying to improve GPS in urban and indoor applications,” states Locata Corporation co-founder Nunzio Gambale. “From a technological perspective, Locata has created something completely new: the capability to autonomously create a GPS-style system on the ground.”

Members of the GNSS community can see for themselves at Locata’s coming-out party at ION-GNSS 2011, including release of a Locata signal interface control document (ICD). GPS World took an advance look at the technology in a June trial of the demo that all ION attendees can see. This article presents these reports, after an outline of the technology.

The key to Locata’s positioning system is the signal generated by the Locata transceiver, or LocataLite, to synchronize its time to other LocataLites in a network. Locata creates a network that, according to the company, “is in almost perfect synchronization” without using atomic clocks. Each transmitter dynamically synchronizes with other Locata transmitters using a patented method called Time-Loc. Gambale says that a Locata network currently locks to about 2 nanoseconds.

Each LocataLite base station has an uninterrupted range of approximately 10 kilometers, with indoor signal penetration similar to that of a mobile phone tower.

The company emphasizes that its transceivers are not pseudolites, but devices that create TimeLoc synchronization, and thereby enable an autonomous synchronized network that, locally, looks like GPS. The local constellation is under local control, and can therefore be designed for deployment at any power, any frequency, or any density required by an application.

The networks can scale easily. The term “local” can mean a room or warehouse (100s of m2), a campus or open-cut mine (10s of km2), an airport terminal area with approach and landing routes (100s of km2), or a wide area, range, or city (1,000s of km2)

Gambale sees markets for Locata’s technology in defense, mining, emergency services, construction, and security. Locata is designed to integrate with existing GPS technology, as simply another constellation. This means an approprieate GPS-Locata receiver can use the satellite signal when outside the range of a Locata network. To a combined GPS-Locata chip, the LocataLite will appear as another satellite.

The company sold its first Locata network in July 2005. Locata has signed partnership agreements of various kinds with Leica Geosystems and Newmont Corporation (mining), the U.S. Air Force, the Advanced Navigation Technology Center of the Air Force Institute of Technology, and several other firms under non-disclosure terms. There was an initial test deployment at Holloman Air Force Base in May 2008, as a truth reference system spanning a test area of about 52 by 15 kilometers.

For high-multipath environments such as indoors and warehousing, the company’s latest development is a new antenna called a TimeTenna, which it will demonstrate at ION-GNSS.

Future research and development will focus on the miniaturization of the Locata receiver. Work has begun on a combined GPS-GLONASS-Locata chip that can be integrated initially into professional and industrial devices, and eventually into consumer devices such as mobile phones.

Locata plans to work with integrators only, not with end users, making the technology available to qualified partners developing receivers and applications. The ICD is the first step in Locata’s technology rollout.

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LocataLites awaiting boards. Each LocataLite transmits four PRN signals.

A Long Time Coming

Eric Gakstatter, Survey editor

You may have heard the Locata name pop up over the past several years. It would be in the news, then back underground into stealth mode. About five years ago, I heard some interesting rumors about its technology but I decided not to take them seriously until I saw some real products.

Two years ago, I sat down with Nunzio Gambale, Locata CEO, at the ION-GNSS conference. At last year’s ION, I talked with him again. At that point, I understood the potential impact of Locata’s technology — if it worked as advertised. I again told myself that before I spent more time on it, I wanted to see a product introduced to the market based on Locata technology. In January of this year, it happened.

Leica Geosystems introduced its terrestrial GPS Augmentation Network for the mining industry, based on Locata technology. To me, that was a pivotal point. Leica is a reputable company and wouldn’t introduce a product without a thorough vetting.

I contacted Nunzio and we had further discussions. I wanted to see the technology in action — hard to do since Locata is based in Australia, I’m in Portland, Oregon, and an early installation occurred in South Africa. Fortunately, the company’s need to do a real run-through of its demo on site, prior to ION, meant that I got what I wanted to see, right on my doorstep: a Locata preview at the Oregon Convention Center in June.

The Technology

Essentially, Locata has developed a system that is very much GPS-like in that one has a network of reference stations (LocataLites) that interface to an unlimited number of rovers. One major difference is that there is no space segment. It doesn’t need or use satellites. Essentially, each reference station behaves like a satellite on the ground, with the rover moving around inside the polygon formed by the reference stations. The rover position is accurate to the centimeter level.

The value of the Locata receivers is that they don’t need a clear view of the sky to operate like a GPS receiver does. Yes, that means centimeter-level positioning indoors, where RTK GPS doesn’t work due to satellite visibility constraints, as well as outdoors.

Sound cool? It is. I saw it working indoors at the Oregon Convention Center. Locata staff set up a large room with Locata reference stations around the perimeter. They had two different rovers: one mounted on a small push cart and the other on a golf cart. We were able to move the rovers around the room freely and view the updated coordinates at 1 Hz intervals (although it’s capable of much faster update rates).

The Challenges

The new TimeTenna (see facing page) is large. Today that form factor is required to handle the high-multipath indoor environment. Locata is working on a scaled-down version, although it’s not unreasonable to envision the current model being mounted on a forklift or other vehicle if it was mechanically hardened. The antenna for Locata’s outdoor systems (for mining and other less hostile environments) is much lower profile and similar to a standard GPS antenna.

The Locata system requires that you manage a network of Locata reference stations. Similar to an RTK network, the Locata system is based on a network of reference stations around the project area. The baseline distances can be quite long (tens of miles), but nevertheless, one must install and manage the network much as one would a GPS RTK network, albeit with much less IT department involvement than a GPS RTK network.

Lastly, Nunzio Gambale wholeheartedly agrees that Locata’s technology is still developing. He likens it
to where GPS was in 1990. I tend to agree. The antenna technology needs to reduce in size and the system architecture needs to be vetted for reliability in production environments. But keep in mind that Leica and the U.S. Air Force’s 746 Test Squadron have already bought into Locata’s technology in a big way.

Although I don’t pretend to have the technical understanding that some of the others in the room possessed during the June demo, I did hear one of the sharper engineers exclaim “genius” at one point, referring to the design.

It’s certainly worth a close look as Locata’s technology continues to develop and be deployed. I think the day isn’t far away when we will see a system from Locata that will allow a user to transition seamlessly from centimeter-level positioning outdoors using RTK GPS to centimeter-level positioning indoors without breaking a step.

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Topographic illustration of Locata network installation at an open-cut mine, similar to cover and opening photo. LLs are LocataLites.

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Timetenna initial tests in a steel shed, 2010. The prisms on the test systems for the laser total station provide a high-accuracy truth.

Now I’m a Believer

Tony Murfin, Professional OEM editor

I was invited to Portland in late June to preview an operational system which promises to help GPS in tough signal situations and work well indoors. While Europe, China, India, Japan, and of course Russia are all working to get more operational satellites in space, Locata in Australia has quietly been perfecting its terrestrial navigation system. I say perfecting because skeptics and naysayers have criticized Locata and what was seen as a pseudolite system with a rather lengthy development cycle. But nothing speaks as loudly as an operational system adopted and fielded by Leica Geosystems or a contract with the U.S. Air Force to get people’s attention back in the right place, even though Locata would claim it is only just getting started.

As I walked into the Portland Convention Center I was certainly apprehensive as to how any GPS-like system could function well within the massive concrete and steel building. When I found the smiling Locata group tucked away in one of the side ballrooms, it didn’t take long before I became a believer. Those wall dividers that allow the Convention Center to reconfigure rooms are apparently referred to as Acousti-Seal 931 Steel Operable Wall panels — yep, perfect multipath reflectors. So to see totally repeatable few centimeter positions in this cavern was not what I was anticipating.

The ballroom’s carpeted floor had been carefully laser-surveyed with a matrix of 5-meter squares, with a high-precision dot marking each grid intersection. LocataLite stations were set up at each corner and one in the middle at the far end, each with three antennas. A master station at the left corner of the entry wall originated the TimeLoc signal, and on each station one antenna pointed to an adjacent station, over which TimeLoc synchronization was cascaded around the network. This is a key feature of the ground network, allowing it to become fully synchronized and also to be extended or reconfigured at will.

Of course, when you run your own ground network it helps to be able to run at power levels significantly higher than GPS, so it’s easy for each station to communicate with another, provided they roughly have line-of-sight of each other — kind of like having to actually see a GPS satellite to get it into your GPS position solution. If you have some buildings or bushes or trees to contend with, having higher power available makes things easier, especially if you want an RTK carrier solution.#4

The secret to working indoors appears to be the TimeTenna phased-array antenna that Locata demonstrated in the steel-clad ballroom. With this top-hat-like antenna mounted on a wheeled cart along with a receiver and laptop, and positioned over one of those surveyed locations on the carpet, we could easily see that positions within less than 5 centimeters were consistent and solid. As a truth system, the company also had a motorized laser scanner pumping out centimeter-level positions on a parallel measurement system, and it was clear that there was excellent centimeter-level correlation.

But don’t take my word for it. Come to Portland for the ION-GNSS conference, September 20–23, and see the Locata demo for yourself — you’ll be impressed too!

Then there is the sole-source U.S. Air Force contract that has Locata updating an existing network to provide independent reference positions over 2,500 square miles of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The Air Force apparently needs to know how its navigation systems work when it turns on localized GPS jamming. The Locata system is designed to give the Air Force better than the specified <18-centimeter position accuracy in GPS-denied environments.

In August, Locata cleared the final USAF critical design review milestone for the wide-area White Sands Missile Range deployment. This is clearly a good sign that Air Force wants to continue with the next-generation Locata system. With GPS denied on this range, test vehicles will likely be constrained to inertial-only navigation, but with a LocataLite receiver onboard pumping out high-accuracy position measurements, the Air Force will no doubt have plenty of location data to track dynamic performance under GPS jamming conditions.

Another application that Locata has been investigating involves airborne trials in Australia, where initial results indicate position accuracy of less than 3 meters at up to 50 kilometers. The trials have involved a ground network with six base stations spread over a roughly square area of 1,500 square kilometers.

A University of New South Wales test aircraft equipped with precision GPS, inertial reference system, and laser scanner for truth reference use flew to within 3 to 49 kilometers of the reference stations at around 7,000 feet, producing the reported <3-meter code solution. Trials data is still being analyzed to produce a higher accuracy carrier solution, and Locata expects to issue these results at ION.

Airborne Reference Equipment

Leica has apparently been working with Locata for some time. The proof-of-concept installation at a 300-foot deep diamond mine in South Africa and a production set-up at a gold mine in Western Australia are going strong.

The gold-mine installation has now been extended to two pit sites using 15 LocataLite transmitters in total. LocataLite receivers are mounted on vehicles, atop drills and shovels, and all run off the multi-pit Locata network. The mobile units not only carry LocataLite receivers, but also precision Leica GNSS receivers running off side-by-side antennas. As time progresses, the ultimate solution will use integrated multi-constellation/LocataLite receivers: the Locata signals integrated into a combined satellite+terrestrial receiver position solution, using a single integrated antenna.

It’s easy to envisage such an integrated receiver and antenna where the Locata ground-network signals are used as just another local constellation. The investment to get to such a receiver would of course have to be justified by a whole proliferation of Locata networks. This would seem to be on the way, given the significant progress that Locata has now unveiled.

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Wide-Area APNT Trials in May 2011. A six-transmitter LocataNet covers more than a 1,500-square kilometer area around Snowy Mountains Airport, Australia.

Will It Fly — Literally?

William Shears, aviation engineer

If you are an aviation satellite navigation enthusiast, you probably noticed this hasn’t been an auspicious year for aviation GNSS or for GNSS applied to any other user segment that needs highly reliable GNSS service. Between personal privacy jammers, instances of accidental interference, and the big chill sent through the community by the LightSquared debacle, many are asking if GNSS is now or ever will be reliable enough to be a sole means of position and time for safety-of-life applications.

A few years ago, the very idea that ordinary people would want to own GPS jamming devices and that they would be easily obtainable on the Internet would have been considered absurd. Similarly, the idea that the U.S. government would not vigorously protect GPS from interference was just not credible. But here we are in mid-2011 and the vulnerability of GNSS to interference has come home to roost, in several very big ways. This new awareness of the weaknesses of GNSS has led the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and civil aviation authorities of other countries to start rethinking their long-term strategies with respect to satellite navigation.

Even well before LightSquared crept into the consciousness of the GPS community and then burst forth as the apocalyptic specter that threatens to virtually end the utility of GPS in North America, the FAA had begun a study to consider the need for an alternate positioning, navigation, and timing (APNT) system to support critical aviation needs. The idea being that as the U.S. air traffic management system transitions to become increasingly dependent on management of traffic via four-dimensional trajectories, reversion to a non-trajectory based mode (for example, controllers vectoring aircraft as they do today) would become unfeasible. Hence, airplanes will need a very reliable source of 4D positioning and outages for any extended period of time due to interference, or anything else will be unacceptable. The FAA set about studying what level of performance would be required for a system intended to back up GNSS in the future. Other countries began to follow suit, and whereas the concept of an APNT was obscure a year and a half ago, it has become a significant point of discussion at the International Civil Aviation Administration (ICAO) as well as within various countries, including the United States, Australia, and several in Europe.

At first blush, the Locata system would seem to be a ready-made solution poised to fulfill aviation’s need for a GNSS backup system. In fact, acting as an independent backup (and/or an augmentation to) GNSS is one of the main motivations in Locata’s development. The technology seems to have promise in meeting the aviation community’s needs for an APNT. Locata is relatively mature technology that has demonstrated accuracies well in excess of what is required of an APNT meant to back up GNSS for enroute, terminal, and non-precision approach operations. Perhaps even precision approach and landing could be supported. Also, the system is very flexible, which suggests that service coverage could be tailored as needed around important airports. The system has significant redundancies built in, including multiple frequencies, multiple antennas for path diversity, and the ability for the network to reconfigure which LocataLite uses which other LocataLite for time synchronization.

Given this flexibility and redundancy, it should be possible to configure a system that provides highly reliable service where it is needed. Another major advantage of the Locata technology for aviation is the higher signal power level that comes from using terrestrial signals rather than signals from space. In theory, a Locata system would be more robust to interference than space-based GNSS signals.

Some people are indeed thinking about Locata for aviation use. Locata has conducted flight trials in Australia using a prototype demonstration network of six LocataLites covering an area of more than 1,500 square kilometers around Cooma airport in Australia. Locata has reported code positioning solutions of better than 3 meters at ranges up to 50 kilometers, and will present higher accuracy carrier-phase solutions at ION. The U.S. Air Force is also preparing to use Locata in an aviation environment as an independent truth reference.

At the ICAO Navigation Systems Panel (NSP) meeting in May 2011, the Australian panel member presented a paper outlining the general need for an APNT. The paper included a description of Locata as an example of what an APNT solution might look like. However, it is interesting that the paper fell short of proposing that the panel pursue Locata as the solution or to suggest that any standardization of a solution for APNT begin immediately. In spite of all the potential advantages discussed above, the Locata system faces a major obstacle before it can practically be used in aviation applications: standardization.

The first aspect of standardization that is likely to be a huge impediment for Locata (or any other APNT proposal, for that matter) is spectrum. The Locata systems implemented to date have been designed to operate in the 2.4 GHz unlicensed industrial applications band. For Locata to support safety-of-life applications, national aviation authorities will require that an APNT system use spectrum that is properly allocated for use in a safety-critical aeronautical navigation system, that is, spectrum allocated for Aeronautical Route Navigation Services (ARNS). Spectrum allocated as ARNS is afforded special protection from interference. Coordination of services in or near ARNS spectrum is often difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. For example, coordination between civil aviation use of the 108–118 MHz band (used for instrument landing systems, or ILS, and VHF omnidirectional range, or VOR) and FM broadcasting in the 88.1–107.9 MHz band produces real costs and restrictions to be borne by the FM broadcasters. Consequently, any proposal to convert non-ARNS allocated spectrum to ARNS is likely to be met with significant opposition.

Spectrum is a finite resource, and virtually all spectrum is already in use by someone. So, the reality is that a future APNT will likely have to be implemented in some existing ARNS spectrum, since a new global allocation of spectrum for ARNS is an unlikely proposition.

The current allocations for ARNS include:

  • 108–118 MHz (ILS/VOR),
  • 960–1215 MHz (DME/Mode-S/ADS-B/SSR/JTIDS/MIDS),
  • 1556–1626 MHz, and
  •  5.1–5.25 GHz.

All indications are that a Locata system could be could be operated at these frequencies. However, services that already exist in those bands will continue for the foreseeable future. So, to be viable, a Locata system would have to coexist in one of these bands with other existing systems, that is, not interfere with the operation of those other systems. Such coexistence has yet to be demonstrated either by analysis or test.

After suitable spectrum has been identified, the next major hurdle for Locata is standardization of the signal-in-space to the degree that supports interoperability of equipment produced by different manufacturers in different countries. The Locata ICD released at ION-GNSS 2011 is a good step in the right direction. But for an aviation application, a great deal more would need to be specified, including details about the waveform (spectral mask, out-of-band emissions, and so on), the protocols for producing the signals, and the standard protocols for the application of data to derive a position solution. A clear allocation of responsibility between the ground processing and airborne processing will need to be defined so that system integrity can be analyzed and assured.

At the international level, such standardization activities can take a decade or more. The length of time required depends on the maturity of the system that is proposed for standardization. The existence of a similar standard, with perhaps a significant user base and operational experience also helps (for example, an IEEE standard or RTCM standards). So, again, the ICD is a good start.

Beyond the technical aspects of standardization, there are political and institutional aspects that can often be more formidable barriers. Issues with spectrum have already been mentioned. Beyond that, there are issues with intellectual property. Creating aviation standards based on proprietary technology is unpopular although not unprecedented. Proposals for standardization are more likely to be successful the fewer strings, such as licensing agreements or fees, that are attached. This is a challenge since companies that have worked hard to develop cool new technology are often reticent to give away their intellectual property in the name of standardization.

Given all the barriers, how does new technology ever get implemented in civil aviation? Typically, applications begin in one of two ways:

  • in support of war.
  • in support non-safety related industrial applications.

The military has historically pioneered many technologies (radar, DME/TACAN, GPS) that would probably not have been developed otherwise. Even after the initial military experience, there is typically a period of time when the new technology is used in a non-safety-critical capacity to support some commercial objective. In the case of Locata, some potential applications would be flight-test position-reference systems, high-precision photogrammetry, high-precision positioning for crop dusting, and any other applications that require a highly robust, high-accuracy position solution in a well-defined region where interoperability and certification are not issues. Those are relatively small niche applications, which may provide some valuable operational experience.

However, serious movement towards adopting Locata as a standard for APNT is unlikely to happen without the support of at least a couple of large countries. Even a large user base with equipage does not guarantee that countries will adopt the technology or that air navigation service providers will authorize the use of the technology for safety-critical applications. For example, many carriers are equipping with broadband Internet equipment to provide service to the passenger cabin. Yet, there is no serious discussion of using that datalink capability for safety-related communications. Similarly, a very large number of aircraft are equipped with Aircraft Condition and Reporting System (ACARS) datalink, yet use of that system is largely limited to non-essential Airline Operational Communication (AOC) applications.

So will Locata fly? I believe that is entirely up to Locata and other companies that work with Locata to address the initial military and niche airborne positing markets. Operational experience gained by such early adopters will be critical in laying the groundwork for the support that will be needed from large states like the United States, Australia, China, and those in Europe, if Locata is to be a player in the longer-term international standardization of APNT.

In the near term, Locata is already serving the aviation community by demonstrating the art of the possible relative to what a ground-based navigation system based on modern technology could be.

GPS World staff

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