GNSS: What to watch in 2018


That faint rumble you’re hearing in the distance all this year is the sound of rockets launching. Worldwide, more than 180 orbital launches are scheduled for 2018, the clear majority of which will be carrying satellites for communications, imaging, and—importantly—Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).

GNSS, the broad term for any satellite network that supports geo-spatial positioning, currently includes systems from four major operators: GPS (United States), Galileo (European Union), GLONASS (Russia), and BeiDou (China). GNSS has become increasingly valuable—even indispensable—to almost every aspect of the digital revolution, and 2018 will be an eventful year for the global GNSS industry. Highlights will include:

The Year of BeiDou.

The Chinese BeiDou GNSS will become truly global in 2018. After launching nine BeiDou 3 Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites in 2017, China plans 13 more MEO and GEO (Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit) satellites this year.

With a total of 32 satellite launches from 2017-2020, China is throwing a lot of resources into a constellation that will compete with GPS, Galileo and GLONASS. The Asian powerhouse has an eye on the huge economic benefits associated with ownership of satellite navigation, and will probably mandate the use of BeiDou in China for critical applications or segments.

When you consider the forecasted market for GNSS devices globally is nearly eight billion devices by 2020 (Source: GNSS Market Report 2017)—or more than one device for each human on Planet Earth—it’s unsurprising that China is pursuing this market.

While the U.S. claims the biggest share of GNSS market revenue from manufacturers, integrators, and service providers, Europe is in second place (albeit a long way behind the U.S.). The globalisation of China’s BeiDou system will only cause its portion to rise, probably overtaking Europe. Many commercially available consumer chipsets already have BeiDou 3 capability built in, so this trend will be worth watching closely over the next few years.

EGNOS in Europe.

Currently there are more than 400 LPV (Localizer Performance with Vertical guidance) runway approaches in use at airports throughout Europe, which provides guidance to aircraft down to 200 feet above the runway. By the end of 2018, this number will rise to more than 510—each enabled by EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service), a ground- and satellite-based system that improves the accuracy of GNSS.

The proliferation of EGNOS-powered LPV in Europe is an indication of how rapidly GNSS, and in particular EGNOS, is being adopted by commercial aviation in that region. EGNOS-powered LPV is extremely cost-efficient compared to traditional ILS (Instrument Landing System) solutions. Moreover, as a positioning solution for commercial or military drones, EGNOS will support safe operation of such craft within restricted airspaces or beyond line-of-sight.

GNSS has long shown that it can provide the precise position and timing information that aircraft and ground systems need. Its global proliferation will continue to revolutionise the way we fly, reducing and eventually eliminating holds and stepped altitude clearances. All this won’t be complete in 2018—but the accelerated uptake of LPV approaches in Europe shows how rapidly the aviation sector is embracing GNSS.

Threats to GNSS.

This is the year that talk about GPS threats will encompass  talk about protection from cyberattacks as well as jamming and spoofing. At the U.S. government’s Position, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board meeting last November, Harold “Stormy” Martin, Director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based PNT (Positioning, Navigation, and Timing), said, “GPS is more computer than radio…GPS receivers lack cyber resilience. This is a national issue.”

Martin is right. Often the GNSS community speaks of the threat to GNSS signals from jamming and spoofing, and uses that as a justification for an augmentation system of some sort. However, many GNSS receivers run embedded operating systems such as VxWorks or Linux, and many support standard protocols such as TCP/IP and USB. This means that in addition to jamming and spoofing through the RF channels, these systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks such as man-in-the-middle attacks that can spoof or manipulate position or timing information at the application layer.

Recent events in the world – the Black Sea spoofing incident of 2017,  recent attempts to jam US drones in Syria,  reports of GPS interference to commercial aircraft in Manila, all highlight the risks to GPS from RF threats which will only increase through 2018 – but it is also time to address the cyber resilience of Position Timing and Navigation systems too.

Last December the U.S. Department of Homeland Security published its report, “Responsible Use of GPS for Critical Infrastructure,” which outlined steps that GNSS developers, integrators, buyers, and users can take to mitigate risks. Importantly, it stated that receivers should be designed to not only withstand interference, but also to recognise when an attack is underway, sound an alarm, and to take action to quickly return the receiver to its normal state.

In early February of this year, the UK Government Office of Science issued a similar set of recommendations for critical infrastructure that relies on GNSS. Enhancing security for PNT systems will require cybersecurity protection, and this will become a much bigger issue in 2018.

Big-Data GNSS.

As the world continues to embrace GNSS, it’s worth considering the amount of location and timing data being generated, and where it’s going. Every day, roughly 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created globally—and GNSS is contributing significantly to this total. GNSS location data can be used for everything from locating a friend to crowdsourcing traffic snags or diverting vehicles using automobile navigation apps. This data proliferation is sparking a GNSS revolution, as integrators and developers identify novel ways to leverage the information.

The most viable uses are likely to be location-based services and road/transportation, but the timing/synchronisation market is also important. Already many financial transactions rely on timestamps from mobile devices for processing; furthermore, thanks to the Smart Cities movement, crowdsourced data will be increasingly valuable. Privacy concerns will no doubt be raised over the use of personal location/timing data—and they rightly should be debated, especially because criminals have already used GPS tracking technology to commit serious crimes.

These four trends are likely to dominate GNSS discussions this year—but they aren’t alone. The growth in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), the Internet of Things, multimodal logistics, and other developments are also impacting and/or impacted by GNSS. One thing’s for sure: as the value of GNSS grows, the amount of attention, systems and, yes, hardware, will increase as well. The countdowns, it seems, are just beginning.

Guy Buesnel, PNT Security Technologist, Spirent Communications
Image Credit: Spirent