“What Can GLONASS, GPS L2C, and GPS L5 Do for You?” Webinar Q&A Follow-up

October 6, 2009  - By

I hope you’ve enjoyed and benefited from the webinar series as much as I have. I think that given the limited travel budgets in this economy, they are one of the most powerful tools for collaborating. I consider it collaboration because I learn also. Your questions and comments make me think about topics I might not normally consider.

I also have to give credit to our marketing folks in spreading the word about our webinars. I’ve spoken to others who conduct webinars and I don’t hear of anyone attract the attendance numbers that ours are do (if I may be so bold as to toot our horn). I didn’t see the final attendance numbers on the last webinar, but I think we had over 600 registered. By early next year, I think the number should reach 1,000 for each of the survey/construction/GIS webinars. Hopefully, in the next few months we’ll also start up a webinar series for GeoSpatial Solutions, which I started working on earlier this month.

As I’ve been accustomed to doing, this newsletter addresses the questions you submitted during the Sept. 15 webinar entitled “What Can GLONASS, GPS L2C, and GPS L5 Do for You?”.

There were some great questions during the webinar, and a lot of them. There were so many, in fact, that I’m going to break them up into a couple of different newsletter issues. Also, I need to update you on my trip to ION GNSS a couple of weeks ago. I might mix up the next newsletter with more Q&A as well as the ION GNSS update.

Lastly, don’t feel the need to wait until the next webinar to send me your comments/questions. I can guarantee you that many others have the same questions that you do.

Question #1: Recent Statement: GLONASS satellite signals are not used nearly as much as the GPS satellite signals (domestically) — is this true? If so, what is the percentage of GPS usage vs. GLONASS in the states?

Gakstatter: The general statement is true. GLONASS is used predominately in high-precision RTK (real-time kinematic) applications that require centimeter-level accuracy. Even in that segment, I think only a minority of the existing survey receivers utilize GLONASS. But that’s considering legacy receivers that have been in operation for many years. You should remember that GLONASS only became a widely adopted technology in the last few years and it’s still an option on most survey receivers unless you purchase the top-of-the-line model. As recent as five years ago, several mainstream manufacturers still didn’t support GLONASS.

Also, consider that the popular entry-level GPS L1 survey receivers such as the Magellan ProMark 3 line don’t support GLONASS at all.

On the GIS front, GLONASS is just starting to make its way into mapping-grade receivers such as the Trimble GeoXH and Topcon GMS-2 Pro. But realize that correctors for GLONASS aren’t supported by real-time correction systems such as WAAS/EGNOS/MSAS or DGPS/NDGPS or OmniSTAR. GLONASS isn’t supported by OPUS or other online post-processing services either.

But make no mistake about it, GLONASS usage is increasing substantially. This is mainly due to GPS “brownout” periods where there aren’t enough GPS satellites throughout the day to be productive. It’s simply too expensive for work crews to sit idle while waiting for the GPS constellation to improve during parts of the day.

Lastly, next year the Russians are introducing a significant change with their new generation GLONASS-K satellites. They are going to begin supporting CDMA (vs. FDMA they support now). You can think of this like VHS vs. Beta VCRs of 20 years ago. Today, a GPS/GLONASS receiver is basically two receivers in one box, just like a VCR player that would support VHS and Beta formats. This makes a GPS/GLONASS receiver difficult to design, power hungry and generally inefficient. This is the reason you do not find GPS/GLONASS receivers in the consumer GPS market and rarely in GIS/GPS receivers. However, this is going to begin changing next year as Russia will begin to support CDMA signal structure. This will be the start of a new era in simplifying the design of GPS/GLONASS receivers. I believe it will mark the beginning of the wide-spread adoption of GLONASS. However, this is not an overnight process. It will be many, many years before enough operational GLONASS-K satellites are in orbit to support a CDMA GPS/GLONASS receiver. Of course, it’s also critical that the Russian space program stay focused (politically and financially) in order to achieve this.

Question #2: Will current GLONASS receivers work with the new (GLONASS) “K” satellites?

Gakstatter: It is my understanding that the GLONASS-K satellite will support legacy signals and signal structures. Essentially, they would be broadcasting FDMA and CDMA signals. So, the answer is yes. I will report back to you if I hear anything different as this is a critical issue given the large number of GPS/GLONASS receivers in use today.

Question #3: What does the “k” stand for in RTK?

Gakstatter: I apologize for “flinging around” acronyms so loosely.

RTK is an acronym for Real-Time Kinematic. Essentially, it’s a GNSS technology that’s capable of providing centimeter-level positioning in real time while it is moving. RTK utilizes the message carrier (carrier phase) rather than the message itself.

Question #4: Why will traditional GPS L1/L2 receivers become obsolete after Dec 31, 2020?

Gakstatter: It’s probably best for you to read the article I wrote about this last year. I also conducted a webinar on the subject you can listen to here.

It’s important to note that the Dec 31, 2020 date is not a date in which your legacy receiver will stop working. After that date, the US Department of Defense says they won’t guarantee support of semicodeless techniques. In other words, it may work and it may not. The risk is with the user.

Question #5: What about the accuracy of L2C code? Is it like C/A or P code?

Gakstatter: L2C provides a pilot carrier for L2. Before L2C, the architects of the original GPS never intended for the civil community to be able to utilize L2. But some very smart engineer/entrepreneurs figured out a way to track the L2 carrier in a “round-about” way via the semicodeless technique mentioned above. With L2C, the semicodeless technique isn’t required any longer so the L2C signal-to-noise (SNR) value is stronger.

However, there aren’t enough satellites (only 7) in orbit broadcasting L2C at this point to make a significant difference.

Secondly, L2C has a code similar to C/A code broadcast on L1, but much improved. However, this isn’t being broadcast on L2C at this point due to the ground control segment of GPS not being ready yet. Last indication I received was that it was about two years away from being ready.

Question #6: If there is a black out in GPS in a GPS/GLONASS receiver, how will it affect? No Black out in GLONASS.

Gakstatter: I’m assuming you are referring to a total black out of GPS signals. GLONASS isn’t at the point where you can rely on it as a stand-alone system. It lacks a sufficient number of satellites (17) and the quality/reliability of the measurements isn’t nearly as good as GPS.

Question #7: Are certain frequencies more stable/reliable than others.

Gakstatter: GPS sign
als/frequencies (L1 C/A and L2C) are very stable and reliable. They are the most reliable satellite navigation signals in the world. I wouldn’t say that a single GPS signal or frequency is more stable or reliable than another. However, there are a limited number of satellites (seven) that broadcast L2C so it’s not as available as it will be when a full constellation of satellites will be broadcasting L2C (several years from now).

Many users have GPS/GLONASS receivers. GLONASS, and Russia is very open about this, is not as stable or reliable as GPS yet. While not useful yet as a stand-alone system, GLONASS has proven to be very useful as an augmentation to GPS. This is the reason that GPS/GLONASS receivers have become so popular in recent years in high precision RTK systems.

Russia has stated that their goal is to match GPS performance in the future.

Question #8: How will the autonomous accuracy improve with L5 or L2C?

Gakstatter: Multiple frequencies allow the receiver to directly mitigate the effects of the atmosphere which is the major source error in GPS positioning.

I’ve heard it been discussed quite widely that decimeter accuracy without correction will be possible with a dual frequency receiver (L1/L5). Furthermore, since both L1 and L5 (and L2C) are open signals (unlike legacy L2), multiple frequency receivers will be widely available and a fraction of the cost of today’s dual frequency receivers.

Question #9: Will any abilities of the L1/L2 w/ L2C be downgraded when semicodeless is disabled?

Gakstatter: This is a very good question. The difference I can think of may be the number of satellites broadcasting L2C at that time. If there are still a number of legacy satellites that aren’t broadcasting L2C, one may lose the ability to utilize those satellites.

Also, it’s important to understand that semicodeless isn’t necessarily going to stop working after December 31, 2020. The DoD merely states that they won’t guarantee it will work after that date. In other words, the DoD might choose to test or utilize a feature that might disrupt semicodeless receivers and they aren’t obligated to inform the civilian community that they are doing so.

Looking into the future, I’m guessing that receiver manufacturers will create firmware in the receivers (L1 C/A, L2, L2C) that might be capable of detecting this scenario and react accordingly.

Question #10: If you have a receiver supporting L1/L2/L2c/ glonass where you are tracking 16+ satellites has there been any though on a weighting system for satellites in your solution?

Gakstatter: Another good question. I’m not sure how the receivers handle this. I will ask a couple of receiver designers I know. I am familiar with some receivers (mapping-grade receivers using code phase) that utilize signals from satellites for which there are no corrections available in order to improve the PDOP. For example, some satellites may not be visible by more than one SBAS reference station and therefore no correction would be issued for that satellite by the SBAS…but the range data from that satellite may still be used to improve the PDOP and position.

Question #11: Are the ground stations shown in the WAAS slide (SBAS(2) I believe) all operational today?

Gakstatter: Yes. There are currently 38 WAAS reference stations and all of them are operational today. Twelve were added in the last couple of years (red dots on the map below).

Four were added in central/eastern Canada, four were added in Alaska and five were added in Mexico. This extended the WAAS service area significantly to the north and south into Canada and Mexico and significantly improved WAAS performance in Alaska.


Question #12: What is the expected accuracy of WAAS in North America and can WAAS be received under canopy (forested) areas?

Gakstatter: Well, like all questions about GPS accuracy, the answer is “it depends”.

There are two major factors when considering the accuracy of WAAS.

The first is the WAAS itself. Looking at the WAAS Performance Report published quarterly by the National Satellite Test Bed, WAAS accuracy throughout North America is well under a meter (horizontal).

Secondly is the quality of the GPS receiver one is using. A standard consumer-grade GPS receiver using a SiRF (or other) GPS chipset or a GPS-enabled mobile phone is not going to deliver submeter accuracy. Those receivers simply weren’t designed with accuracy as a primary design criterion. On the other hand, there are several GPS receivers available that were designed with professional users in mind that are able to optimize WAAS accuracy and achieve submeter accuracy.

Operation under tree canopy is even a trickier subject. Among GPS receivers designed for professional users, there is a subset that has been optimized to operate under tree canopy. First, let me be clear that GPS accuracy degrades under tree canopy for all GPS receivers. It’s just a matter of how much it degrades.

There are two primary issues when operating GPS receivers under tree canopy: accuracy and tracking. Great accuracy is not worth anything if the receiver can’t track satellites. On the other hand, great satellite tracking does little for the professional user if the accuracy is horrible.

Utilizing WAAS under tree canopy has the additional challenge of the GPS receiver needing to track one of the two WAAS broadcasting satellites (GEOs). Their signal is affected by trees just like GPS satellites. Some companies have developed technology that allows their GPS receivers to temporarily lose track on the WAAS GEO satellite for up to 30 minutes and still maintain WAAS accuracy (or close to it).

Question #13: Is there a live web page that is good for survey planning, based on GPS satellite positions?

Gakstatter: There are several GPS satellite planning software packages available as free downloads. Trimble, Topcon, and Leica Geosystems offer them. These require the user to install the software on their computer and update the almanac frequently.

There is one on-line GPS satellite planning tool from NavCom Tech that’s very convenient for two reasons. First, you don’t have to install any software on your computer. Secondly, it updates the almanac automatically. It has a couple of drawbacks. The major one is that it doesn’t consider GLONASS or SBAS satellites. Secondly, one can’t adjust the elevation mask. Hopefully, NavCom will consider adding those features in the future.

I wrote an article on this subject recently. You can view it here.

Thanks and see you next time!

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About the Author:

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as consulted with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributor to GPS World magazine, serving as editor of the monthly Survey Scene newsletter until 2015, and as editor of Geospatial Solutions monthly newsletter for GPS World's sister site Geospatial Solutions, which focuses on GIS and geospatial technologies.

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