Shipping port

Ships to fall back on vintage radio communications systems

Image credit: Dreamstime

South Korea is planning to establish a new radio communications navigation system based on those used in the Second World War. This is in response to the growing threat of cyber attacks targeting GPS signals.

90 per cent of the world’s trade is transported by sea. Unlike aircraft, ships have no back-up navigation systems. If their GPS fails, they risk being lost on the open sea, or colliding with other ships in crowded lanes.

Over the years, these ships have suffered severe disruptions to their navigation systems, with causes remaining largely unknown. While abnormal solar weather can cause some satellite signal loss, some of these disruptions could be due to deliberate attacks.

GPS and other Global Navigation Satellite Systems [GNSS] suffer from weak, distant signal, which can be disrupted with cheap jamming devices.

In 2016, GPS failures caused hundreds of fishing ships to retreat to port early after North Korean hackers jammed their signals. North Korea has denied these accusations. A wave of similar attacks has heightened the need for alternative navigation systems to protect the connected shipping industry.

“My own view, and it is only my view, is we are too dependent on GNSS/GPS position fixing systems,” said Grant Laversuch, head of safety management at P&O Ferries.

“Good navigation is about cross-checking navigation systems, and what better way than having two independent electronic systems.”

South Korea is leading the development of alternative shipping navigation systems to fall back on when GPS fails. Korean engineers are working on installing eLoran, an earth-based navigation technology. This is the successor to the loran (long-range navigation) system, which dates from the Second World War. The typical eLoran signal is 1.3 million times stronger than a GPS signal, and consequently far more challenging to deliberately jam.

Government officials have said three sites for eLoran test operations will be established in South Korea by 2019, with more due to follow.

“ELoran is only two-dimensional, regional and not as accurate, but it offers a powerful signal at an entirely different frequency,” said Dr Brad Parkinson, chief developer of GPS and a former US Airforce Colonel.

“It is a deterrent to deliberate jamming or spoofing [providing incorrect positions], since such hostile activities can be rendered ineffective.”

In the US, the House of Representatives passed a bill in 2016 aiming to provide for the establishment of an eLoran system, while the UK and Russia are exploring versions of the technology. This has been framed as a means of protecting national security from increasingly state-sponsored cyber attacks on vital infrastructure.

Providing this back-up system will require the building or renovation of dense infrastructure: a network of radio transmitter stations to provide signal coverage.

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