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Timing center to protect UK from risk of satellite failure

The UK’s emergency service responders and other critical services could be set for more resilient time systems through the National Timing Centre.

The United Kingdom has established a new timing center to reduce reliance of public services and its economy on GNSS satellites. The center uses a network of atomic clocks housed at secure locations, and consists of a team of researchers based at sites across the UK.

The National Timing Centre will provide additional resilience for accurate timing, which underpins many everyday technologies including emergency response systems, 4G/5G mobile networks, communication and broadcast systems, transport, the stock exchange and the energy grid — all of which depend on precision timing from GNSS.

A large-scale GPS failure would cause a £1 billion a day economic impact to the UK. Loss of this accurate data would also have severe and life-threatening effects, such as on getting ambulances to patients or getting power to homes around the country. The center’s land-based technologies will improve the UK’s resilience and provide important back-up.

The UK’s current dependence on satellite technologies has been identified by the government as a potential security risk if a satellite were to experience a failure. The Blackett Review in 2018 looked at the UK’s vulnerabilities to over-reliance on Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).

National Timing Centre to add resilience

The government is investing £36 million to create the National Timing Centre, which will ensure the UK economy and public services have additional resilience to the risk of satellite failure. The investment will build a resilient network of clocks across the UK. It includes £6.7 million which will be made available via Innovate UK funding calls to SMEs and industry to innovate around timing and clocks.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway announced the center on Feb. 19. “Our economy relies on satellites for accurate timing,” she said. “Without satellites sending us timing signals, everything from the clocks and maps on our phones, to our emergency services and energy grid would be at risk. I’m delighted that this world-first centre will see our brightest minds, from Surrey to Strathclyde, working together to reduce the risks from satellite failure.”

“The failure of these systems has been identified as a major risk, and The National Timing Centre programme will help to protect both vital services and the economy from the disruption this would cause while delivering considerable economic benefits,” said UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive Professor Sir Mark Walport.

“We are proud to be leading the way in providing trusted and assured time and frequency,” said National Physical Laboratory CEO Pete Thompson. “The work undertaken by the team here has ensure the National Timing Centre programme will provide huge benefits to society, whilst underpinning secure applications in the future.”

The center also includes researchers at the University of Birmingham, the University of Strathclyde, University of Surrey, BT Adastral Park, Suffolk, BBC, Manchester, and the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington.

The £76 million investment furthers the government’s commitment to significantly boost R&D investment across every part of the UK, including funding transformational technologies and increasing the number of researchers.

The funding is provided through the Strategic Priorities Fund, which supports high-quality discipline research and development priorities, with investment also going towards autonomous systems and national collections.

Alongside investment in the new center, the UK government is investing a further £40 million in a new research programme, Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics.

Total investment through the National Quantum Technologies Programme is set to pass £1 billion since its inception in 2014.

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