Filling in the GPS gaps

Technology like the Global Positioning System (GPS) is now taken for granted but what happens when it stops working? One Australian company is trying to fix the flaws and make GPS more reliable.

Like many of today’s technologies the Global Positioning System (GPS) is taken for granted but what happens when it stops working?

That question is set to take centre stage at the spatial@gov conference in Canberra next week and it’s an issue that warrants attention given our increasing reliance on the technology.

According to Nunzio Gambale, CEO of Locata Corporation, GPS is more than just a navigation tool but also an integral part of the world’s timekeeping with the time servers that run the internet, mobile phone networks and the banks’ Automated Teller Machines.

Canberra-based Locata is in the business of filling in the gaps in the GPS network and Gambale says our over-reliance on GPS belies the fact that it is susceptible to jamming and signal degradation.

Bottom line - GPS just isn’t as reliable as many of us would like to think.

“The designers of the Global Positioning System in the 1970s never contemplated the way we use the technology today,” says Gambale.

“They never expected it to be a $2 component in a mobile phone.”

The birth of GPS

The development of GPS’ development came out of the US ballistic missile system’s need for precise navigation and timing. The network’s atomic clocks synchronised by series of satellites provided that service. After the KAL 007 tragedy of 1983 where Soviet fighters shot down an off course Korean Airlines passenger jet north of Japan, US President Ronald Reagan ordered the US Air Force to make GPS available for civilian purposes.

With the development of cheap GPS receivers in cars and smartphones, positioning technology is now ubiquitous and many industrial and financial systems use both the positioning and timing aspects of the system to make ensure data is correct.

Should these services not have access to the time servers which depend upon the GPS they steadily work their way out of synchronisation, ultimately causing problems for the devices and the businesses which depend upon them.

Knocking out the signal cheaply

The GPS network isn’t always reliable and along with not working indoors the GPS signal can be blocked by cheap jammers available online for under fifty dollars.

“You can buy a jammer that will knock out the signal for several hundred meters,” says Gambale.

 “Hundreds of these are sold to truck drivers and others who don’t want to be tracked by GPS devices.”

Like the internet and mobile phones, the GPS service is a “best effort” technology – while they work most of the time, they may not be reliable at critical times or in difficult locations.

Businesses and governments need to have a contingency for the times when the computer doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘signal not found’.

Footing the GPS bill

There’s also the problem of maintaining the GPS which relies on the US Air Force’s 50th Space Wing based in Colorado Springs, which employs over 5000 personnel with a budget of $1.5 billion a year.

For the cash strapped US government that’s a big ask and, despite there being Russian, Chinese and European alternatives to the GPS available or in development, the future of the United States footing the bill for the world’s lost delivery drivers and ATM networks’ atomic clocks may be uncertain.

Locata Corporation was born out of the unreliability of GPS signals. Originally Gambale and his business partner David Small were working on a tourist guide to Canberra which used GPS to detect a visitor’s location and give them information on the attraction they were looking at.

While the system worked fine while you were in the open the moment you walked into an attraction like the Australian War Memorial the signal was lost. Providing that signal is the idea behind Locata.

Having robust positioning technology is important to almost every industry today but as the mining boom ends Australia also needs robust technology businesses that add value in a world economy that values smart people over bulk commodities. 

Locata is one of these businesses and their attempt to fix problems with GPS is the sort of venture that could do with some support.

Mapping and location technology services is one area that Australia has a good track record in with Sydney’s Google Maps being the biggest success story. This might be one area where Australian industry can have a global advantage.