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A System of Systems

Hope on the horizon for GNSS interoperability

Glen Gibbons

Robustness, redundancy, availability, interoperability. Like FM radio, these are the qualities that make a GNSS system of systems such a desirable goal.

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Cruising around out here in Oregon, far outside the D.C. Beltway on the golden sunset side of the American dream, listening to the radio, I realize I have a little signal availability problem of my own sometimes.

As I head home to Eugene after visiting a few produce stands out in the country, my favorite classic rock station over in Corvallis begins to fade in and out. The backup station of choice is coming in strong — but it’s pumping out a marathon set of advertisements. Finally, I reach my fallback — a public radio station at the local high school, and we’re back in the groove.

Coming back from the recent Institute of Navigation conference in Fort Worth, Texas, I reflect once again on how happy I’m in the GNSS business, and that GPS is getting some company out there in space. Because, great as the Global Positioning System is — and it’s been great for the past 18 years at least — it’s time the system had some backup (and that other national budgets began carrying some of the financial weight, too).

Robustness, redundancy, availability, interoperability. Like FM radio, these are the qualities that make a GNSS system of systems such a desirable goal — for GNSS product manufacturers and location services providers, for end users, and for the nations building critical infrastructures and national security policies on space-based positioning, navigation, and time.

The recent ION GNSS event underlined just how vigorously that goal is being pursued around the world.

On Monday before the conference’s opening, the U.S. Air Force reported a successful launch of the second modernized GPS Block IIR satellite with new military and civil signals and announced another launch in November. Meanwhile, program officials were waiting patiently to hear Europe’s decision on whether BOC (1,1) or multiplexed BOC signals would become the common L1 civil signal waveform for future GPS and Galileo satellites.

From Russia we heard of a new commitment to bring a modernized GLONASS system on line rapidly, to expand it to embrace true civil and commercial utility, and — mirabile dictu! — to consider adding CDMA signals to its basic FDMA transmissions. And, remember, over the past three years, GLONASS is the only GNSS system that has delivered its satellites into space as scheduled.

Finally, European officials, public and private, expressed a new responsiveness to widespread pressure to release Galileo’s open-service signal specs to commercial development – without licensing fees, favoritism, or other foolishness. Not a done deal, by any means, but certainly a nod in the right direction.

In these developments, we can see the beneficial effects of having multiple systems jostling for the limelight. Like celestial bodies in motion around one another, they manifest a gravitational pull. Indeed, the emergence of GNSSes (plural) has demonstrated an institutional version of Newton’s First Law. No longer can those bodies remain at rest, or undisturbed on courses defined only by their own motion.

Yes, GPS is still the system in this GNSS system of systems. Still the king of kings, the shahinshah, the capo di tutti capo. But this element of American exceptionalism is waning, as Galileo and GLONASS wax ever more confidently — to the betterment of all three and the benefit of a world in which the GNSS utility is making a permanent home.

A system of systems and each, a system among systems.


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