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UK dependence on satnav could cause deaths

UK's over-reliance on satnav could cause death

Royal Academy of Engineering report says we use satnav too much without thinking

A new report by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) states that the UK is dangerously reliant on GPS and this technology could end up with disastrous consequences, including a loss of life.

In the Global Navigation Space Systems: reliance and vulnerabilities report, the RAE examined how the UK had become dependent on satellite navigation systems. Primarily this reliance on Global Navigation Space Systems (GNSS) is the US-run GPS, but with both the Russian GLONASS and European Galileo systems planned, the problem could get worse.

The report identifies many level of threats, including no back-ups to the systems and deliberate or accidental interference, both man-made (such as jamming) and natural (such as solar flares). These problems are extenuated by the fact that satnav is so pervasive, as it’s so cheap to build it into devices. As a result GPS-enabled products range from from smartphones and cars to business fleet-tracking systems and ambulances.

All this has led to a massive dependence on the technology. In fact, according to the report the “European Commission, in its mid-term review of the European satellite radio navigation programmes (18 January 2011) estimated that an €800 billion chunk of the European economy is already dependent on GNSS”.

Unfortunately, this reliance has come at the price that no-one has really though about what would happen if the system were to go wrong.

“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,” said Dr Martyn Thomas, chairman of the RAE’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 RAE pulls no blows when it says what could happen if satnav systems were to fail or be jammed.

“All GNSS applications are vulnerable to failure, disruption and interference and the report looks at a range of possible consequences of these, from the inconvenient (such as passenger information system failures) to possible loss of life (such as interruptions to emergency services communications),” said the RAE.

As a result of its report, the RAE is recommending that all critical uses of satnav “include GNSS vulnerabilities in their risk register and that these are reviewed regularly and mitigated effectively”. Currently, critical services have access to the eLORAN terrestrial radio system for positioning data, but this needs to reviewed regularly to ensure it’s still working and can deal with the failure of the main satnav system.

The RAE is also asking that a legal loophole which allows people to import jamming devices into the UK is closed. Finally, it’s asking for R&D into antenna and receiver improvements that would “enhance the reliability of GNSS dependant systems against natural and man-made threats”.

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News | Sat nav