European transport over-reliant on GPS signals

London, United Kingdom: European transport companies are dangerously over-reliant on satellite-navigation signals, according to a report from the British Royal Academy of Engineering.

Use of space-borne positioning and timing data is now widespread in the freight transport industry. The academy fears that too many applications have little or no back up were these signals to go down. It says that receivers need to be capable of using a variety of data sources.

Dr Martyn Thomas, who chaired the group that wrote the report, told BBC News: “We’re not saying that the sky is about to fall in; we’re not saying there’s a calamity around the corner.

“What we’re saying is that there is a growing interdependence between systems that people think are backing each other up. And it might well be that if a number these systems fail simultaneously, it will cause commercial damage or just conceivably loss of life. This is wholly avoidable.”

Global Navigation Satellite Systems such as the US-operated Global Positioning System are hugely popular and used by most transport fleets. Systems also include temperature monitoring data transmission. It is not just the excellent positioning that navigation satellite systems afford but the very precise timing information these systems deliver that has made them so popular.

The European Commission, in an update on its forthcoming Galileo sat-nav network, estimated that about 6-7% of Europe’s GDP, approximately €800bn (US$1,120bn) annually, is dependent in some way on data from global navigation satellite systems.

The RAEng report, one of the first assessments of just how many applications in the UK use GPS signals and their like, and their probable vulnerability to an outage of some kind. This can be deliberate jamming or natural hazards, such as solar activity. Both can introduce errors into the data or simply take it out altogether.

Thomas said that the UK was already dangerously dependent on GPS as a single source of position, navigation and timing data. He said that “back-up systems are often inadequate or un-tested; that the jammers are far too easily available and that the risks from them are increasing; that no-one has a full picture of the dependencies on GPS and similar systems; and that these risks could be managed and reduced if government and industry worked together”.

The report recommends raising awareness of the problems and getting users to assess their own particular vulnerabilities and possible back-up solutions. It also calls for possession of jamming equipment to be made illegal. Criminals use this equipment to hide their activity, for example blocking the GPS tracking systems in the trucks they seek to steal. Jammers capable of swamping all receivers over a wide area can be bought for as little $40.

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