The Open PNT Industry Alliance has formed, promoting open markets to provide much needed protection and backups for GPS/GNSS-based positioning, navigation, and timing.
Probably every user of consumer GPS applications — like the navigation on your phone, commercial drone control, and location-based rideshare apps — has at some point wondered: “What if GPS suddenly stopped working?” This question takes on a much more serious tone when considering public safety, industrial uses, construction machine guidance, autonomous and assisted driving, precision agriculture, and many more. The biggest end user segment does not get talked about much among the general public but impacts everyday life profoundly: precise timing. Power grids, cell networks, all airborne platforms, electronic banking and computing rely heavily on the utility of precise global time, delivered by GPS. We live in a wired world, and GPS serves as the world’s clock.
Resilience for positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) is a rallying cry across the globe. The potential vulnerabilities of GPS are many: jamming, spoofing (trying to trick the GPS devices with false signals), interference from other radio sources, radio spectrum encroachment, policy and funding issues, and natural phenomena (e.g., space weather, solar flares). The signal strength of GPS as observed on the ground is akin to viewing a 25-watt lightbulb that is 10,000 miles away, the equivalent of 100 aW (attowatts, or units of 10-18watts).
The advent of GPS and other global navigation satellite constellations (referred to collectively as GNSS) brought benefits to the world far beyond any imagined when first deployed over four decades ago for defense purposes. GPS has without a doubt changed how our world works. Reliance on GPS for so many elements of PNT only compounds the specter of potential disaster should it be compromised. There is a growing cry for protection, backups, and alternatives from end user constituencies, public safety, science and academia, defense, transportation, and multiple industries.
Open PNT Industry Alliance
In December of 2020, the Open PNT Industry Alliance was launched. It is a coalition of manufacturers and service providers that have dedicated themselves to providing their customers backups for, and improvements to GPS/GNSS solutions by delivering better signal protection, augmentations and alternative forms of positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT). The following companies are current members : Focus Telecom, infiniDome, Iridium, Jackson Labs Technologies, NAVSYS Corporation, NextNav, ProTrack, OPNT, Orolia, Oscilloquartz, OshoCorp Global, Qulsar, Satelles, Seven Solutions, TrustPoint, and Xona Space Systems.
But why an industry-focused alliance? Certainly, there are alternative PNT initiatives at all levels of various governments and those almost always include private industry in discussions. But this growing group felt they needed to be more focused on certain aspects, most notably the need for open markets along with a commercially viable and sustainable long-term funding framework.
“We believe that an open market, with competition, harnessing the ingenuity of the industry, is going to bring about the best, most robust and most diverse solutions for PNT,” says Dr. Michael O’Connor, CEO of Satelles, one of the alliance’s members. “Diverse solutions are needed to meet the various performance characteristics and operational requirements of the different end users. The requirements are different for different industries. The electrical grid is different than transportation and is different than data and communications infrastructure. And furthermore, we believe that having these different solutions is also a good thing to counter all the different types of threats to PNT that are growing. In order to be more resilient, these different types of PNT can counter the different threat vectors that are out there, including threats that are just emerging.”
The formation of such an alliance had its origins in informal conversations between multiple PNT solutions firms over the last year. An early action by companies that would later join the coalition was a January 2020 joint letter to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) officials urging their support for multiple forms of PNT to meet the needs of critical infrastructure operators. Last summer a separate group of companies cosigned a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in support of DHS actions and recommendations with regards to PNT resiliency and alternatives.
Discussions continued about forming an alliance, and in examining several models, the companies decided on an informal coalition construct. It is completely member run, and decisions are by quorum and consensus. While the alliance is not seeking to do any direct policy lobbying, individual member firms are free to do so. The alliance does express views on policies, and indeed some of the actions taken by the alliance have been to comment on specific policies and initiatives—several are summarized here. A prime example was a response to a long-awaited report from the U.S. Department of Transportation on a demonstration of multiple alternate PNT technologies facilitated by the agency. A statement endorsing the DOT report was one of the first actions taken by the alliance after its formation.
The membership is diverse, with firms that provide satellite-based solutions like the growing low-earth orbit (LEO) platforms, protection of the received GNSS signals using CRPA (Controlled Radiation Pattern Array antennas), network-based solutions, systems based on inertial sensor integration, computer vision software and devices, and terrestrial wireless solutions (both wide-area and local solutions). There are service providers, equipment manufacturers, and consultancy service providers, and as resilient PNT is a worldwide concern there is global representation: the U.S., Europe, Middle East, and India. The principal representative for each member firm is often the CEO, president, or general manager, but companies in the coalition are welcome to have other employees engage.
PNT Alternatives and Backups
What are some of the PNT backup, defense, and alternatives these and other firms are developing? One thing for sure, no one is proposing to completely replace GPS/GNSS. The best resiliency scenario for PNT is multiple solutions that can improve GPS/GNSS, provide services in places that are GPS/GNSS denied (indoors, underground, in urban canyons and dense forests), provide better security for PNT solutions, or improve precision to enable even more applications.
None of the companies in the Open PNT Industry Alliance want to replace GPS. Rather, they believe that true resilience comes from a diversity of technologies and applications, including those that provide RF defense against external intervention, alternate (typically low earth orbit) satellite-based solutions, terrestrially broadcast navigation and timing signal networks, and developers of PNT solutions that leverage newer GNSS constellations, like Galileo (Europe), Beidou (China), and NAVIC (India). Furthermore, there are firms that continue to work alongside GPS, and making it better by providing encryption, security services, and interference detection.
The alliance had their second official meeting at the end for February 2021. Subjects discussed include industry outreach, specifically how to get the public and decision makers better informed about PNT vulnerabilities and the need for multiple alternative solutions. The alliance is just now hitting its stride, finding its cadence. It makes sense that such an initiative would come from the PNT industry, as the promise of multiple solutions grows most rapidly in open market environments. “A common thread is you just can’t have one choice,” says O’Connor. “Not just one alternative, you got to have a variety of alternatives. Strength in diversity.”