DARPA seeks new positioning, navigation, timing solutions

Navstar-2F satellite of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Image: USAF

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), writing about GPS, said: "The military relies heavily on the Global Positioning System (GPS) for positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT), but GPS access is easily blocked by methods such as jamming. In addition, many environments in which our military operates (inside buildings, in urban canyons, under dense foliage, underwater, and underground) have limited or no GPS access." This raises the questions of what DARPA plans as a step up. Will DARPA introduce relevant new technologies? Let DARPA say it in its own words: "GPS has provided a tremendous strategic advantage to the U.S. military, but heavy reliance on GPS has also become a strategic vulnerability. The need to be able to operate effectively in areas where GPS is inaccessible, unreliable or potentially denied by adversaries has created a demand for alternative precision timing and navigation capabilities."

Agam Shah of the IDG News Service reported on Thursday that DARPA is preparing an alternative technology to GPS. By alternative, the search is on for technology where signals won't disappear in blind spots and cannot be jammed. DARPA wants to work on a more flexible and customizable technology with the help of algorithms, said Shah. While GPS technology has provided a strategic advantage, he said, it is not foolproof, as it can be jammed by opponents or be inaccessible in some parts of the world. DARPA is developing "radically" new technologies to deliver a more advanced position- and navigation-tracking system, said Shah.

A portion of a DARPA report which was released this month titled "Breakthrough Technologies for National Security" summarized the Agency's mission and evolving focus areas. They discussed GPS as part of the report. DARPA said the new technologies in which they are investing "have the potential to deliver GPS-quality position, navigation and timing information for military systems, including novel inertial measurement devices that use cold-atom interferometry; chip-scale self-calibrating gyroscopes, accelerometers and clocks; and pulsed-laser-enabled atomic clocks and microwave sources."

Shah said DARPA is developing sensors that "use signals of opportunity" such as television, radio, cell towers, satellites, and even lightning, for real-time tracking. The effort, called ASPN (All Source Positioning and Navigation), alleviates issues related to fixing locations in buildings, deep foliage, underwater or underground, where GPS access can be limited.

As for when this may happen, DARPA's research typically takes years or even decades to turn into actual products, said Shah. He said "the U.S. military will likely have first dibs on the GPS alternative before the technology reaches everyday users."

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Mar 28, 2015
I hope they're not going to waste taxpayers' money on neutrino detectors.

Mar 28, 2015
No one frequency band can cover all those zones, and that's without deliberate interference.

Worse, GPS reliance on having sight of multiple satellites means that a mix of mishap and rough terrain may prevent a good lock.

Perhaps closing US/Canadian Loran C low-frequency system in ~2010 was a tad premature ??

As I understand it, the EU will continue to use their network in conjunction with the GPS-alike Galileo system. One consideration is the proliferation of inexpensive GPS jammers used by eg rogue truckers...

Mar 28, 2015
Nik 2213, Loran was a decent technology for its time, but with modern equipment, I'm pretty sure we can do better than that. Precision atomic clocks are dropping in price very rapidly.

Many LF beacons that used to be used in aviation and some marine applications are going off the air. Perhaps they should be replaced with very precise frequencies and modulation, surveyed to well known reference sites. The more of them there are, the easier it would be to know where you are and the harder it would be to spoof them.

Also, when comparing them against a local atomic clock with a known local reference, set before departure, one can detect efforts to suddenly spoof things.

Mar 29, 2015
Let me save DARPA the trouble.

Here is an Australian invention that's going to replace the security holes in GPS.


Mar 29, 2015
Loran is still a good technology with penetrating properties. Its hard to disturb (big antennas needed, and high power), and it reaches far beyond the ocean surface. It can also be used as a differencial correction for GPS, GLONASS etc. http://elorantech...ologies/

Mar 30, 2015
So we are back to some form of INS based on gyroscopes and accelerometers.

Mar 30, 2015
as it can be jammed by opponents or be inaccessible in some parts of the world

Jamming or inaccessibility aren't the real danger. Spoofing is. Imagine that GPS-guided missile just flying back to you because someone is spoofing the signal. Spoofing is also quite simple to do. There are already Ingress (a GPS based game) players who spoof the signal so that they can relocate spawning points inside their classrooms so that they can farm items while going to lectures. So the technology to do so is by no means limited to high tech organizations.

So we are back to some form of INS based on gyroscopes and accelerometers.

Sort of. Maybe with a really good accelerometer array they could use the gravity geoid of the Earth for an approximate fix? I think the resolution of that would be rather low (or not feasible with current sensors) but that would be one signal that'd be very hard (impossible?) to spoof/jam.

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