Most of us now consider GPS positioning an ordinary part of our home and work life.
But, is our reliance of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) putting us and our work at risk?
The UK's Royal Academy of Engineering thinks so. In a new report, the Academy says that now that the range of satellite navigation systems is so broad, signal failure or interference could potentially affect safety systems and other critical parts of the economy.
"GPS and other GNSS are so useful and so cheap to build into equipment that we have become almost blindly reliant on the data they give us," explained Dr. Martyn Thomas CBE FREng, Chairman of the Academy's GNSS working group. "A significant failure of GPS could cause lots of services to fail at the same time, including many that are thought to be completely independent of each other. The use of non-GNSS back ups is important across all critical uses of GNSS."
The report, Global Navigation Space Systems: reliance and vulnerabilities, points out that satellite navigation signals are now in widespread use by data networks, financial systems, shipping and air transport, agriculture, railways and emergency services. In fact, the European Commission, in its mid-term review of the European satellite radio navigation programs this January estimated that an 800 billion chunk of the European economy is already dependent on GNSS.
Unfortunately, though, all GNSS applications are vulnerable to failure, disruption and interference, from both natural and malicious causes.
Is some cases, the severity of the errors may be so large as to give noticeably suspect results which can immediately be identified by the users. But, according to the report, the real threat lies in "dangerously misleading" results which may not seem obviously wrong for example, a ship directed slightly off course by faulty data could steer directly into danger.
The criminal use of jamming equipment to bypass GNSS systems could block tracking of consignments of goods or defraud systems that collect revenue (such as toll-road charging).
In order to remedy these concerns, the Academy recommends that:
critical services include GNSS vulnerabilities in their risk register and that these are reviewed regularly and mitigated effectively.
policy responses include the closing of a legal loophole which allows the import, advertisement and possession of jamming devices.
an R&D program focused on antenna and receiver improvements be created. This program needs to enhance the resilience of GNSS dependent systems against natural and man-made threats.
Even if these recommendations are followed, the Academy admits that a level of vulnerability will remain.
"No one has a complete picture of the many ways in which we have become dependent on weak signals 12,000 miles above us," Dr. Thomas said.
The Academy's report is available online at www.raeng.org.uk/gnss.