Business & GA, Commercial, Embedded Avionics, Military

Editor’s Note: Recalculating

By by Emily Feliz | November 1, 2012
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What started out as military-only network has exploded so that everyone, everywhere is connected via GPS. You can get GPS in your car, on your phone, on the boat, and, yes, even on an airplane.

For aircraft operators, the systems are invaluable, providing benefits that allow pilots to safely and efficiently navigate an aircraft to its destination. Additionally, GPS is a cornerstone of FAA’s NextGen airspace modernization initiative; without it, NextGen would simply not happen.

The vulnerability of the GPS network has come into question in recent months, following some high-profile jamming and spoofing incidents around the world, and the LightSquared broadband proposal.

However, the vulnerability of the GPS network has come into question in recent months, following some high-profile jamming and spoofing incidents around the world, and last year’s LightSquared broadband proposal, which studies showed posed a serious GPS interference risk. These are in addition to the perennial concerns of spectrum capacity and government equipment mandates.

A distinguished panel of experts discussed these events and the other challenges facing the ubiquitous GPS network in an Avionics Magazine Webcast, “Navigating the Skies: The Future of the GPS Network.”

Tom Hendricks, president of the National Air Transportation Association, which represents the interests of the general aviation industry, during the Webcast equated GPS systems in aircraft to cell phones for the general public –– we all have them, and we all rely on them. “It has been a seminal event for the aviation community to rally around protecting this valuable resource that we have,” Hendricks said. “Our concerns are not directed at a specific company, rather it’s the technical aspects that we see that present challenges to the aviation users … Any transmission that would impede GPS is a big concern for the aviation industry.”

The U.S. GPS network is only one of a few such networks in the world, including Russia’s GLONASS, Europe’s Galileo, China’s BeiDou (COMPASS), in addition to other regional constellations, and ground- and aircraft-based augmentation systems. (For more on other GPS constellations, see our September article, “What Will Follow GPS?”) The GPS network is undergoing a modernization program, and the U.S. government has planned to invest $1.3 billion in the constellation in the next fiscal year.

“In my view, the future of the GPS network is bright indeed. There are billions of users of GPS today worldwide and the government is investing a tremendous amount of money in GPS,” said Christopher Hegarty, director, CNS engineering and spectrum, at MITRE Corp. “The future of GPS avionics is tied to the future of the overall Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS).”

The third generation of GPS constellation updates, headed by prime contractor Lockheed Martin, will provide improved position, navigation, timing and power capabilities for military and civilian users. Additionally, GPS III, which will launch its first satellite in 2014, will provide increase accuracy, additional signals, anti-jam capability and the ability to operate autonomously without ground control corrections, according to John Frye, GPS III capability insertion program manager at Lockheed Martin. “The GPS III constellation is on schedule and moving forward successfully, and it will bring new capabilities to our global civil users,” Frye said.

For avionics manufacturers, the challenge becomes developing GPS equipment that can not only comply with FAA and other regulatory standards, but that can also operate in these new constellation networks, which have faced some schedule delays as well. This is particularly pressing as the U.S. automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) mandate of 2020 approaches, panelists said.

“The ADS-B mandate in the U.S. has a stricter requirement than any of the other ADS-B mandates around the world,” said Rex Hygate, business development manager, airline solutions, at Esterline CMC Electronics. He said airlines have been using GPS receivers compliant with TSO-C-129a, which was a standard enacted in the late 1990s and was subsequently cancelled in 2011 by FAA. “For these aircraft to operate in the airspace past 2020, they are going to have to look for some form of an update” for their GPS receiver.

To listen to an archived version of this Webcast, visit

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