UK: The UK may have become dangerously over-reliant on satellite-navigation signals, according to a report from the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng). Use of space-borne positioning and timing data is now widespread, in everything from freight movement to synchronisation of computer networks. The academy fears that too many applications have little or no back-up were these signals to go down. Receivers need to be capable of using a variety of data sources, it says.
Dr Martyn Thomas, who chaired the group that wrote the report, told BBC News: “There is a growing interdependence between systems that people think are backing each other up. If these systems fail, it will cause commercial damage or just conceivably loss of life. This is wholly avoidable.”
The RAEng report claimed to be the first assessment of just how many applications in the UK now use GPS signals and their like, and their probable vulnerability to an outage of some kind. It claimed that sat-nav signals are relatively weak – equivalent to receiving the light from a bright bulb at a distance of 20,000km – and this leaves them open to interference or corruption.
Possible sources include man-made ones, such as deliberate jamming, and natural hazards, such as solar activity. Both can introduce errors into the data or simply take it out altogether.
“The key thing for us is the concept of cascade failures,” said report co-author Prof Jim Norton, the president-elect of BCS – the Chartered Institute for IT. “This is what we characterise as accidental systems – systems that exist, but people don’t recognise they exist because they don’t understand the interdependencies. There will be a single common point of vulnerability and failure, but it’s not obvious.”
Dr Thomas added: “We concluded that the UK was already dangerously dependent on GPS as a single source of position, navigation and timing (PNT) data. We concluded that the back-up systems are often inadequate or un-tested; that the jammers are far too easily available and that the risks from them are increasing; that no-one has a full picture of the dependencies on GPS and similar systems; and that these risks could be managed and reduced if government and industry worked together.”
In addition, the report has made 10 recommendations. Three relate to raising awareness of the problems and getting users to assess their own particular vulnerabilities and possible back-up solutions. Two cover hardware solutions, including the suggestion of a government-sponsored R&D programme to seek better antenna and receiver technologies to enhance the resilience of systems. The report also lauds the land-based eLoran radio navigation system as a very worthy back-up technology.
And five recommendations fall into the policy domain. Chief among these is the urgent suggestion that mere possession of jamming equipment be made illegal.