A ship management firm has launched a trial of a GPS back-up system designed to provide positioning data to ships on the sea in case of disruption of satellite navigation services.
The technology, using longwave radio signals up to a million times stronger than those beamed from the satellites, can switch on automatically whenever GPS signal is unavailable either because of a jamming attack or a solar storm.
“GPS outages may not be a frequent problem but it’s certainly a serious one,” Frank Davies, managing director of ship management firm Euroship, which is currently trialling the system, told E&T.
“A GPS outage affects many instruments. Nowadays all the systems are integrated and many of them rely on the GPS in one way or another so it would affect a lot of the instruments.”
Even though GPS unavailability doesn’t necessary leave sailors only with a compass and a star-studded sky for their orientation, the loss of precision and frequency of the data could pose obvious risks on today’s busy shipping routes crowded with bigger and bigger ships.
“You can obviously use radar positioning to get your location but nowadays the radars have input from GPS so an outage would be disruptive,” Davies explained. “You can always use the basic radar without the GPS to find your location but it’s not the best way of doing it. It’s more cumbersome. With the GPS you are getting a steady read-out of your position all the time.”
Euroship will trial the back-up system provided by engineering firm eLoran in a series of scenarios simulating GPS disruption. Although such events may be rare, they are of serious concern, especially as anyone can buy a cheap GPS jammer online and use it for an attack.
“We will disable the GPS signal and allow the eLoran system to take over from it,” said Davies. “Once we’ve proven that it works well, than we’ve got an agreement with the owners of the vessels to roll it out throughout the fleet but we just want to make sure that if there are any problems that we know about them before we roll out the system.”
eLoran stations were installed at the UKs busiest ports last year by the General Lighthouse Authorities. The system provides high precision navigation in the vicinity of the ports but also long range navigation for ships in the English Channel and the North Sea.
The UK is the first country in the world to have rolled out the technology for use by commercial cargo and passenger vessels. Euroship’s fleet is set to become the first to be equipped with the system.
“Shipping lanes are becoming busier and more perilous than ever, whilst mariners are becoming increasingly reliant on one, fallible, source of PNT (positioning, navigation and timing) data,” said Martin Bransby, research and radionavigation manager at the General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland. “This presents a significant risk to the safety and efficiency of vessels, particularly in congested areas like ports. eLoran reduces the vulnerability of vessels by ensuring the uninterrupted provision of position, navigation and timing data even when GPS is down. As a terrestrial system, eLoran signals are much stronger when received than GPS, making it exceptionally difficult to interrupt.”
The roll-out of the system will be completed in 2019.