GNSS Update, Version 2.0
I, along with John Flick, co-authored a fairly in-depth piece on GNSS in the April 2006 issue of Geospatial Solutions. The basics of that article are still applicable, but here’s an update on GNSS events that have transpired since then — with a bit of speculation and guesstimation thrown in.
The most talked about GPS modernization subject since then is L2C.
There are now three IIR-M satellites in orbit that are L2C-capable. Most GPS receiver manufacturers have introduced “L2C-capable” receivers. Although the GPS Wing reports that no data is currently broadcast on L2C, the pilot carrier for L2C is available and useful by L2C-capable receivers. In fact, some experts say that the data on L2C is less important than the carrier. The reason is that with the complexity of semicodeless (legacy) L1/L2 receivers, a real signal loss of 3dB on L2 results in a net loss of 6dB. Using the L2C carrier, it’s a 1:1 ratio.
You can read an older (2001), yet still valid article written for GPS World on L2C. Ignore the dates, because they aren?t valid any longer. Also, ignore references to consumer L2C receivers. The viability of those was effectively nixed when Galileo decided not to use that frequency.
Code on L2C will add some marginal benefit, but that won’t be available for a while still. The GPS ground infrastructure is aged and wasn’t designed to handle L2C codes. Some of the infrastructure dates back to the 1970s. Next month, the GPS control segment will undergo a major upgrade as part of the Architecture Evolution Plan (AEP).
Still, the limiting factor for L2C users is the lack of satellites.
The upgrade is a major step. But the GPS Wing says they’ve been preparing for more than a year for the transition. Some observers have voiced a sort of “the sky is falling” doom that GPS may stop working when they attempt the upgrade. I don’t buy that. I’ll worry about many other things before I worry about that. As my wife told me last weekend while we were watching the Blue Angels (U.S. Navy fighter aircraft demonstration team), “I’m glad those guys are on our side.”
One other note on the AEP upgrade. The current GPS control segment infrastructure is only able to accommodate 32 satellites. Next month’s scheduled launch would bring the current constellation to 32. Given that there will be four remaining IIR-M satellites to be launched after next month’s launch, but no way to accommodate them other than removing serviceable satellites from the constellation, the time for increasing capabilities is officially here. This AEP upgrade will expand that number to 60 and render this a non-issue for decades to come.
You can read more about the AEP upgrade here
Right now, there are five remaining Block IIR-M satellites to be launched. The last one was launched in late 2006. The good news is that the GPS Wing has stated one of their top priorities is to launch the remaining five. The next one is scheduled to launch next month. According to an interview by GPS World Editor-in-Chief Alan Cameron with then GPS Wing Commander, Col. Wesley Ballenger, Jr. back in March 2007, the schedule looks like this:
As in the past, the schedule could slide due to various reasons (resources and/or technical primarily), but all indicators seem to point that the September launch is a “go” — except that it has now reportedly moved slightly to the left, to October 17. Politically, this launch is an important one because, traditionally, it goes up prior to or during the Institute of Navigation (ION) GNSS conference where the GPS Wing makes the “successful launch” announcement — except that won’t quite happen this time around
For precision GPS users, does it really matter what the launch motivation is — as long as they keep doing it? I don’t think so. The bottom line is that more is better.
The GPS Wing has said their desire is to launch the first Block IIF satellite (L2C, L5) before all the IIR-Ms are launched. The reason is to be able to take time to flush out any bugs, especially in a new satellite model, that may occur.
I have no doubt they’ve thought it through and it’s a solid strategy. But it sure complicates the scheduling and really lowers the confidence level that the IIR-M launch schedule will stick. Here’s why:
The AEP upgrade mentioned above is required in order to control the Block IIFs. But, my understanding from the GPS Wing media conference call last week is that another software “update” (beyond next month’s AEP upgrade) is required to the control segment before the first Block IIF can be launched. According to the GPS Wing, that “update” will occur Spring/Summer 2008 and therefore push back the estimated IIF launch date of March-May 2008 to Summer-Fall 2008. One would think this would impact the IIR-M launch schedule.
Furthermore, the Block IIF program has had its share of technical issues. Boeing is scheduled to deliver the first Block IIF in mid-December 2007 but that’s many months too optimistic. Rumor has it that it could be well into 2008 before the Block IIF is delivered. Then with testing and integration, we could be well into 2009 before it takes flight. It’s not hard to doubt the IIR-M launch schedule as laid out above.
Testing L5 on IIR-M
In April 2007, Lockheed was awarded a $6 million contract to develop and demonstrate a payload that will temporarily transmit L5 (1176Mhz) from a Block IIR-M satellite. L5 was originally planned for Block IIF satellites and it’s not likely this will change. All indicators seem to agree that this will be a non-operational, temporary test on one IIR-M to test L5 before Block IIFs are launched.
Not a lot of info on this, but I expect a new press release shortly.
More is Better
As high-precision GPS users, we’re on the leading edge of GPS technology. We push the technology hard and therefore we feel the bumps in the road before anyone else. The biggest bump now is the lack of satellite observables. I can’t count the number of people who have emailed me about the “down-time” during the day due to the lack of GPS observables — even in the wide-open plains of mid-western America, not to mention the beautiful, foliage-laden, topographically-broken northeastern US.
The bandaid for high-precision GPS users, to this point, has been to rely on the Russian system (GLONASS). Whereas three years ago, there were many high-precision, GPS-only receivers on the market, now they are the minority. Almost every high-precision GPS manufacturer offers a GPS/GLONASS receiver. But adding GLONASS to the mix isn’t enough. I’ve used GPS/GLONASS receivers. Sometimes GLONASS helps, sometimes it doesn’t. There aren’t enough GLONASS satellites to help all the time. But I generally advise high-precision users to spring the extra $$ for the GLONASS option because there’s not another choice if you want to add observables.
There’s not enough space here to update you on GLONASS, Galileo, and other GPS modernization initiatives so look for those in the coming months. Also, the ION GNSS conference is next month and I’ll be sure to give you an update on what I hear. There should be some good stuff coming from that conference.