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First Fix: The PNT enterprise is real

Jules McNeff

Jules McNeff

Guest column by Jules McNeff, consultant and GPS World Editorial Advisory Board member

GPS World publications are evolving, as this new column confirms. And the PNT world itself is evolving, first with the emergence of GPS in the 1990s, next with its universal adoption and duplication by others, and now with its foundational role in PNT-enabled applications for technologies of the 2020s and beyond.

Millions of people have grown up in a world where GPS-enabled PNT applications pervade their daily lives, and mostly for the better. But GPS is no longer the only face of PNT around the world, though it is still the best known even as other space-based systems from international providers have joined the party.

From its infancy, GPS was married with inertial systems and clocks. For a short time, GPS emergence stymied the commercial development of both, but as the viability of the marriage was validated, development turned toward miniaturization of the combination and adding more pieces as well.

It is now clear that GPS was the spark, and a multi-faceted PNT enterprise is the new reality.

Because of its free availability, GPS has been the foundational element in most of these integrated applications, and without GPS, many will not work as well — or at all. Consequently, dependence on GPS for efficient operation of many PNT-related activities has become a de facto reality. GPS timing is at the heart of interoperable telecommunications and data networks (most notably the internet) and of modern power grids. GPS positioning was the catalyst for adoption of the U.S. National Grid as a federal spatial interoperability standard for search-and-rescue and emergency response and by the SAE as a standard for commercial land mobility as well.

However, dependencies create vulnerabilities, and over-reliance on GPS has been cited as a potential Achilles heel for both national security and economic critical infrastructure. Efforts have been under way for several years by the U.S. Air Force to strengthen all aspects of GPS and, more recently, much attention has focused on making use of complementary technologies to increase the resilience and performance of integrated PNT devices.

Smartphone and autonomous vehicle developers have used such techniques for years to augment GPS for their applications. The awareness of value from ubiquitous access to precise position and time that was awakened by GPS in 1995 has now evolved into an understanding that diverse services from a broader PNT enterprise are necessary to preserve that access with assurance into the future.

Congress and the DoD have recognized that reality, with Congress directing and DoD implementing a DoD PNT Enterprise Oversight Council to manage future acquisition of PNT capabilities for the military. In August, the Department of Defense (DoD) also released a public version of its Strategy for the DoD PNT Enterprise, highlighting the processes it has created to implement resilient PNT for the Joint Force. Congress and the White House both have also recognized that the imperative for resilient PNT must be extended to domestic critical infrastructure, and this has resulted in direction to civil federal agencies to both strengthen and back up GPS use for their constituencies. It is now clear that GPS was the spark, and a multi-faceted PNT enterprise is the new reality.

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