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Advancing the A in PTA

Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio

The May 4-5 meeting of the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board focused on its mantra to “protect, toughen and augment” (PTA) GPS. The meeting included three great presentations that bear directly on the A of that mantra.


The electric grid used to be simpler: regional operators flowed power unidirectionally from stations to customers basing the load on past usage. Now, the grid is becoming a wide-area network — with regional inter-connects, multi-directional flows, and load based on real-time data and predictive analysis, requiring sensors time-synchronized within 1 microsecond from UTC. Yet, this critical infrastructure’s timing applications depend entirely on vulnerable GPS technology.

“If we can provide an authoritative, trusted synchronization source across the interconnected grid, its operators have a much better opportunity to understand the interdependencies and movement of power across their networks,” said Carter Christopher of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He described the lab’s Center for Alternate Synchronization and Timing (CAST), which provides a redundant and resilient satellite-based service backed up by a network of terrestrial master clocks. CAST is precise, traceable and secure from jamming, spoofing, cyberattacks and physical attacks.


Attila Komjathy and Larry Romans of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) proposed a GPS high-accuracy and resilience service (HARS) based on global differential GPS (GDGPS). It would provide corrections to GPS orbit and clock errors, and encrypted navigation data bits over the internet. It would match Galileo in accuracy, they said, pointing out that Galileo, QZSS and BeiDou provide high-accuracy services in their broadcast signals. HARS would improve the accuracy of consumer GPS receivers of 3–5 m to 1 m and help ensure that multi-constellation GNSS chips would continue to rely on GPS first.

HARS could be implemented by having commercial providers—such as Apple, Google and cellular carriers—distribute GDGPS corrections generated by JPL and supported by government partners. Private industry, Komjathy and Romans pointed out, provide service for RTK, centimeter and decimeter apps, but only governments (the U.S. Coast Guard’s DGPS service and Galileo’s HAS) provide corrections for about one-meter accuracy. Therefore, HARS would not compete with industry and would create additional opportunities for it to create value-added products.


David Castiel and Cyrus Langroudi, of Virtual Geosatellite LLC, proposed αPNT, a virtual geostationary satellite system with elliptical orbits that would provide active PNT in a distributed architecture integrated with a blockchain. The system, they said, would be able to provide very accurate geographical position, precise timing and guidance with a minimum number of satellites on the horizon. It would rely on two-way links between transceivers and satellites to protect against jamming or spoofing.

While GPS’s success makes it a critical and ubiquitous infrastructure, its vulnerabilities require and stimulate exciting new R&D. Stay tuned.

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