Global Navigational Satellite Systems (GNSS), such as GPS, are at the heart of the modern world. If you call a friend, catch a flight, or buy a coffee on your card, GNSS helped make that happen. Recently, it has become very clear that satellite systems are extremely vulnerable to gross disruption from external agents, and that the western world is dangerously dependent on a flawed system.
Leaders in nations vulnerable to satellite failure are now urgently searching for alternative options to make their infrastructure more secure. For Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT), new resilient, network-delivered technology solutions may be the answer.
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GNSS is fragile
For the most part, GNSS does a fantastic job. It’s cheap, widely available, and can be used for a lot of things. But it has a problem: it’s not secure. Its signals are weak because they have to travel such enormous distances from the Space satellites. They can easily be jammed or spoofed. In English: the legitimate signals can interfere with either no data or inaccurate coordinates will be transmitted.
As technology is getting cheaper, it is no surprise that affordable spoofing devices have entered the consumer market. This led to one man attempting to hide lunchtime expeditions in his tracked company van and accidentally wreaking complete havoc when driving past Newark Airport.
This is no joke – reports of significant GNSS disruption are becoming endemic. The UK government estimates that financial trading is affected by 80-120 GNSS jamming incidents every month in London alone. Last summer, there were repeated reports of ships being steered off course in the Mediterranean Sea, and suspected political foul play in the GNSS disruption at Tel Aviv’s premier airport in 2019.
GNSS failure damages business
Theoretically, critical infrastructure like accurate timing could become dependent on stable political relations. GNSS outages could become commonplace and have an enormous effect on consumers and businesses alike because all our public and commercial infrastructures are reliant on GNSS.
UTC, the global timing reference, is calculated by atomic clocks on GNSS satellites. It is then checked by 70 physics institutions across the world, such as RISE (Research Institute of Sweden) and NPL (National Physics Laboratory) in the UK. This accurate timing allows a lot of industries to function.
In financial services, banks need accurate time to know what’s going on and to prevent errors. With millions of transactions occurring every day, if the time on two distributed servers is different by even a millisecond, the transaction’s timestamps become unreliable and transactions must be canceled. This is so important that in both Europe and the US, time synchronization is covered by stringent financial regulations, and failure to be in sync results in lost business and reputational damage.
IoT (Internet of Things) is another industry that deeply relies on precision timing. If the GNSS signal to a driverless car suddenly failed, the vehicle would struggle to access highly accurate timing. This could cause different components in the car’s autopilot system to become unsynchronized or delayed and cause the car to malfunction.
A recent study by the British government found that sustained disruption to GNSS would cost the UK £1 billion per day. It is unsurprising the global governments are looking for solutions. In 2020, the U.S. government released an Executive Order to ‘Strengthen National Resilience through Responsible Use of Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Services’, and followed up in 2021 with Space Policy Directive 7, requiring critical infrastructure to have alternatives to GNSS. The same year, the UK government announced that it would be looking into a ‘National Timing Centre’, which would research how to make the UK less reliant on GNSS.
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Resilient technologies for PNT
As these investigations take place, governments and corporations must look towards existing resilient PNT technologies. In recent years solutions have been developed that provide a highly precise time that is also resilient to GNSS failure.
Traceable Time as a Service (TTaaS) is a leading time synchronization solution, notable for its complete resilience to GNSS failure. Historically, trading venues have received their time from hardware-based architecture, comprising of a Grandmaster clock, an antenna on the roof of every trading venue, and separate synchronization and monitoring software. In contrast, TTaaS, is network-delivered and requires no onsite hardware.
Because TTaaS is delivered across secure networks, it cannot be disrupted or spoofed. The time is derived from a web of resilient cloud timing hubs, each home to three hyper-accurate Grandmaster clocks that are connected to three different sources of time. These hubs then compare the timing sources to ensure accuracy and source traceability. To further protect from satellite failure, the product is supported by a terrestrial location at the Research Institute of Sweden (RISE). This means that even if the satellites fail, highly precise timing is still ensured.
This service can be used in several ways. Firstly, it can replace old timing hardware that is GNSS-reliant, once the existing architecture has come to the end of its life (occurring after around five years). Until this point, it can act as a pivotal ‘back-up’ for systems that remain dependent on GNSS.
Everyone wants a back-up that is ‘just as good’ but that is also affordable. Because the time is delivered across a network, these solutions can provide time at a fraction of the price of existing hardware solutions. They have competitive subscription-based pricing and save firms money due to the lack of associated maintenance and equipment replacement fees.
Over the past year, global industries have been hit by enormous, unprecedented challenges. The impending disruption to GNSS is perhaps the next challenge industries will face, but it is certainly not unprecedented. All evidence is shouting that the existing endemic of GNSS failure is only going to grow.
We can’t wait until an event where we lose £1 billion per day before we invest in solutions that can tackle this threat. Extremely durable and cost-effective solutions that can combat these problems are on the market and ready to be immediately installed. Instead of relying on GNSS for critical infrastructure, global governments need to invest in these new ideas – and be open to emerging innovations from small enterprises.
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