CPNT Go Time for USDOT: An Exclusive Interview with the PNT Director - Inside GNSS - Global Navigation Satellite Systems Engineering, Policy, and Design

CPNT Go Time for USDOT: An Exclusive Interview with the PNT Director

Just five months ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research (DOT/OST-R), Volpe Center issued a 15-day quick-turn Request for Information (RFI), which was subsequently extended for an additional 15 days, to industry seeking feedback on the availability of operationally ready (Technical Readiness Level or TRL ≥ 8) complementary positioning navigation and timing (CPNT) technologies to meet critical infrastructure needs when GPS service is not available, degraded or disrupted.

Now, Volpe has put out another relatively short-fuse formal Request for Quote (RFQ) to award multiple contracts to presumably some of the RFI-responsive companies.

In this exclusive interview with OST-R’s Director for the Office of Positioning, Navigation and Timing & Spectrum Management Karen Van Dyke, Inside GNSS gleans some insights into the why and how of the latest CPNT developments.

Why Now?

Jamming and spoofing has been a pervasive issue for the PNT community for years, but recent world events have ramped up these and other challenges to PNT (e.g., Russian cyberattacks on satellites and alleged plans to put nukes in space). If anything, the increasing and real nature of these threats have underscored the need to move toward having viable CPNT capabilities sooner rather than later.

Perhaps in response, during each of the past two fiscal years, Congress has appropriated about $15 million in additional funds on top of DOT OST-R’s budget request. Not surprisingly, Congress has been applying “significant pressure…on moving out and marching forward in expediting CPNT implementation,” Van Dyke said.

Yet implementation is not easy. Van Dyke foot stomped that, “DOT cannot recommend deploying additional technologies until they have been thoroughly tested, are well understood with regard to their own limitations and vulnerabilities and have been run through their paces just like GPS.”

Hence, we have this latest RFQ. It seeks proposals from CPNT vendors interested in allowing Volpe to test, evaluate and monitor their services’ performance against scenarios involving disruptions or manipulations of GPS/GNSS services and CPNT-specific threat vectors. The RFQ furthers the Rapid Phase of DOT’s CPNT Action Plan, with the aim of advancing CPNT adoption across federal interagency initiatives, in alignment with critical infrastructure PNT user requirements.

Responses to the RFQ must specify that the bidder’s CPNT services will be up and running, and in compliance with all government specs, within six months after award at one of these types of test ranges: Federal Government-hosted; government-aligned critical infrastructure or vendor-facilitated (caveat on this one: when the other two models are not appropriate and/or beneficial to the government). Once ready to roll, the expected period of performance for the selected vendors will be one year.

From Crawl to Run

This is not Volpe’s first rodeo on testing CPNT. In 2020, the Center conducted CPNT demonstrations that resulted in a report to Congress. As noted, Congress has since (FY22 and FY23 appropriations) provided a significant budget in support of those important recommendations. Between 2020 and now, DOT has continued to be deliberate in its approach toward both toughening and complementing PNT with other technologies.

On the bolstering side of the house, in the latter part of 2020, DOT OST-R started a pilot program with the agency’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) to evaluate CPNT technologies, as well as test anti GPS-jamming and spoofing capabilities using Controlled Reception Pattern Antennas (CRPA) on vessels. While CRPA proved effective, International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions on their civil use have created legal roadblocks to their deployment.

Also in 2020, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), DOT collaborated on the 2020 GPS Testing for Critical Infrastructure (GET-CI) live-sky event. The two plan to conduct another GET-CI event later this year.

DOT continues to seek anti GPS-jamming and spoofing capabilities, in addition to CPNT, Van Dyke said. “This is a two-pronged approach,” she said. “If we can get more out of GPS and make it less susceptible to jamming and spoofing, all the better. We don’t view this as an either-or scenario. We want to have as many tools in the toolbox as possible to address the potential disruption, denial or manipulation of PNT services. We need to have gap fillers. This will require additional equipment that can be adopted into end user applications.”

So, on the CPNT side, two years after doing its own demos, DOT held its first CPNT Roundtable to gather both internal and external stakeholder feedback on the best way forward. The Roundtable included industry vendors, federal partners such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, as well as critical infrastructure owners and operators.

Van Dyke characterized those discussions and hearing from both sides as “enlightening.” She noted GPS has provided very reliable service for more than three decades, so critical infrastructure end users have naturally grown comfortable with its use. “It has U.S. Government performance commitments, and it has performance standards built around it,” she explained. “Critical infrastructure owners and operators view that new commercial technologies present a risk to these users. They want to know how it will perform, especially for safety of life applications. They want to understand the level of performance commitments from the manufacturers. They seek performance standards.”

The insights from the Roundtable helped to inform DOT’s thinking on a CPNT roadmap and ultimately informed its September 2023 CPNT Action Plan.

“We all agreed that the government needs to lead,” Van Dyke said. So the plan envisions DOT as a federal clearinghouse, of sorts, for CPNT tech. The goal, per Van Dyke, is to “give end users in the federal government a one-stop shop.” Generally speaking, industry will follow the government’s lead. “The government needs to take action for our own PNT applications first,” she continued. The idea is that critical infrastructure end users will leverage the “CPNT matrix” that DOT will create to shore up their own PNT.

After the CPNT Action Plan launched, things really started moving. That same month, Volpe issued the aforementioned CPNT RFI. Less than six months later, it put forth the current RFQ.

Where We Go From Here

Van Dyke told Inside GNSS they received “over two dozen responses” to the RFI but could not comment on how many of those actually met the mature TRL requirement.

Will DOT focus on global CNPT capabilities or more regional ones, terrestrial options, urban-centric tech or something else entirely? The answer may be all of the above. From Van Dyke’s perch, the primary thrust is to identify a reliable and diverse PNT ecosystem.

Of note, the CPNT tech sought in the RFQ gives priority to GNSS-independence. Van Dyke elaborated, “We need to facilitate end user adoption of CPNT technologies, not just focus on having additional signals in space.” She continued, “This is the opportunity to stress test other diverse CPNT technologies. Either these vendors will show that their tech really does work or, if not, we will learn how they can be improved upon.”

Where will the testing occur? The RFQ only mentions Joint Base Cape Cod, one of two locations previously used by Volpe for the 2020 demos. Van Dyke said DOT is talking with other federal agencies and departments to ensure geographic diversity for the test sites. Requests for comment from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), one of the leaders of the critical air domain, to see whether some of the uncrewed aircraft system (UAS) test or R&D sites (e.g., the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s Daisy Ranch in Durant) or Section 383 (counter-UAS test sites) would be used, went unanswered. We will all apparently know more after DOT issues these awards.

But one thing is clear: from DOT’s perspective, it’s go time for CPNT. DOT remains confident, barring any unforeseen circumstances, that they will meet CPNT Plan timelines.

Van Dyke emphasized, “We have gone out with a solicitation that will likely result in multiple awards. We want diversity of technologies. We have put a lot of thought into the CPNT Plan and timeline. There is a sense of urgency on multiple fronts to now move out. And we intend to execute.”

Because the solicitation remains ongoing, DOT was also unable to provide any insights into exactly how a CPNT service provider could best present the potential viability, safety and economic benefits of their use case(s).

Regardless, Van Dyke did have a message to CPNT vendors, “Seriously consider applying for the solicitation. This is a really great opportunity and the most expeditious path for end user application. We view standing up these test ranges as bridging the gap to demystify these technologies to the end users.”

And this is just the beginning of something bigger. We know there are less mature CPNT technologies that will evolve and still have time to come to the table. There will be other phases over the next few years. In the meantime, we wait and watch to see what shakes out of this latest call for CPNT technologies.