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A back-to-basics stand-in for GPS navigation

It is not realistic to think every cyberattack will be prevented, experts say, so implementing redundant systems is critical to ensuring continuity of operations.

GPS signals, which provide position, navigation and timing services, are susceptible to both deliberate jamming and solar disruptions.  This could be especially dangerous for ships, which tend to rely solely on GPS for navigation.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin illustrated the potential risks of relying on GPS for navigation when it used GPS spoofing to take control of a 65-meter, $80 million super yacht in the Ionian Sea.

Last year, South Korea said the GPS systems on its fishing vessels were hacked by North Korea, and ships in the Black Sea experienced disruptions in their systems this June, according to Reuters. GPS jamming and spoofing have become so prevalent and potentially disruptive to public safety that the Department of Homeland Security has been conducting First Responder Electronic Jamming Exercises for the last two years.

One solution for adding redundancy is eLoran, a radio-based, low-frequency terrestrial navigation system that uses a number of transmission and control stations to emit precisely timed and shaped radio frequency pulses. It operates at much higher power levels than satellite-based system, which makes it more difficult to jam or spoof.

It is the latest iteration in Long Range Navigation, or loran, which dates back to World War II. When GPS became fully operational in 1994, the military eliminated requirements for eLoran’s predecessor, Loran-C, according to UrsaNav, which is a supplier of the technologies.

As far back as 2009, the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center Research and Innovative Technology Administration recognized the technology had potential to mitigate GPS vulnerability, possibly reducing the risk of an adversary attempting to jam GPS signals.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama each introduced plans for an eLoran system, but both efforts stalled.

In July the House of Representatives passed the authorization bill for the Department of Homeland Security that calls for secretary of Transportation to establish a wireless, land-based eLoran system to complement and backup the current GPS system, according to the Resilient Timing and Navigation Foundation, which supported the bill’s passage. It still needs to make it through the Senate.

South Korea, Russia and the United Kingdom have also explored versions of the technology, Reuters said.

The ultimate redundancy when it comes to navigation, however, could be celestial navigation. Courses in the in age-old skill are being taught again in several of the Navy's training schools, according to Naval officials told the news outlet the decision was not based on increased cyber threats, but said it could be a valuable way to check to accuracy of technology if other backups systems go out.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.


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