Will GPS Jamming Cause Future Shipping Accidents?

According to a story in the Financial Times of London, the deliberate or accidental blocking of GPS signals will "likely" cause a major shipping accident in the English Channel within the next decade. That's the conclusion reached by David Last, a professor emeritus at the University of Bangor, Wales and past-president of the Royal Institute of Navigation who is presenting a paper on Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) vulnerabilities to a conference (pdf) being held today at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL).

The focus of the conference is not on military attacks, but on public use of GNSS jamming equipment, some of which can be purchased for as low as £50.

According to an NPL press release, in a 2010 experiment conducted by UK and Irish General Lighthouse Authority, researchers interfered with aboard systems in ships on the English Channel using a low-power level GPS jammer. A researcher told the FT that on one of the ships:

"The display showed the ship traveling over land in Belfast, while we were plainly in the North Sea. And it was surprising how many other devices depended on the GPS working. The compass stopped working and the emergency communications system was knocked out."

The researcher voiced concern that a powerful jammer well-placed, for instance on Canvey Island, could wreck havoc with shipping in the Thames estuary.

Also being presented at the NPL conference are some of the results of the Sentinel (SErvices Needing Trust In Navigation, Electronics, Location & timing) project, which is investigating whether GNSS results can (or should) be trusted by their users. Sentinel uses a system of some 20 jamming monitors situated across the UK in order to "pinpoint the location of any source of interference to GNSS signals," which can then be further investigated. In the UK, for example, it is perfectly legal to posses a GNSS jammer, but it's against the law to use it.

Sentinel monitors at one particular UK location detected over 60 individual jamming incidents in six months, according to the FT. The system also helped authorities find and confiscate a jammer at another location. The expectation is that Sentinel will find an increasing frequency of GNSS jamming in the future.

The NPL conference is also looking into GNSS 'spoofing' and its potential impact, for example, on high frequency trading. Criminals using a GNSS jammer, the NPL press release states, "could throw off the GPS timing systems that time-stamp financial trades, a process known as 'time sabotage'. Even a few milliseconds discrepancy could create confusion and enable unscrupulous traders to leverage their knowledge of the timing discrepancy for financial gain."

While the deliberate manipulation of GNSS is causing concern, the results of a survey released last week by the UK insurance comparison site Confused.com claims that misleading GNSS have caused £203 million in damage the past year in the UK. Confused also claims that some 83% of users report that they have been misled by their GNSS devices.

Last year, by Martyn Thomas, CBE and Fellow of the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, (who is also a long time acquaintance of mine and an occasional commentator on the Risk Factor blog) chaired a Royal Academy study titled, "Global Navigation Space Systems: reliance and vulnerabilities." [PDF] The study said in part that:

"Society may already be dangerously over-reliant on satellite radio navigation systems like GPS ... [given that the] range of applications using the technology is now so broad that, without adequate independent backup, signal failure or interference could potentially affect safety systems and other critical parts of the economy."

Sometimes reliance on GNSS can also have tragic consequences. According to a story Monday in the London Daily Mail, a nine-year-old boy died last September of a heart attack resulting from severe asthma attack.  The story reports that the West Midlands Ambulance Service ambulance crew, which was located only a mile and a half away, took 24 minutes (instead of the target of 8 minutes) to reach the boy because the sat-nav in the ambulance was broken.

The West Midlands Ambulance Service stated that it doesn't rely sat-nav alone to direct ambulance crews to emergency call locations, but it didn't offer an explanation for delay in the crew's arrival time at the boy's home. The coroner's inquest has been adjourned to gather more information about the exact circumstances into the boy's death.

One of the Royal Academy report's controversial recommendations to the UK government was that it:

"... should consider whether official jamming trials of GNSS Services for a few hours should be carried out, with suitable warnings, so that users can evaluate the impact of the loss of GNSS and the effectiveness of their contingency plans."

The time for taking up the recommendation may be approaching faster than anyone imagined.

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