Why GPS can't find you in Haifa

Model of Chinese satellite navigation system BeiDou  credit: Reuters/Song fan
Model of Chinese satellite navigation system BeiDou credit: Reuters/Song fan

Disruptions are making GPS navigation less and less reliable in some parts of the world, and older technologies are making a comeback.

In the past few months, residents of northern Israel have become used to life without GPS, the US network of satellites that enables devices to report their position on the earth’s surface. Navigation app Waze has almost shut down in that area, sports watches report that they are located in Lebanon, and even users of dating app Tinder report dates being proposed in Beirut. Ship captains sailing to the Haifa and Ashdod ports complain of disturbances in reception of satellite signals, and some have reverted to using more traditional navigation aids.

It’s not just in Israel. In the past few days, many European countries have reported disruption to GPS reception. The aviation authorities in Lithuania, Poland, and Finland say that the disruption has become widespread since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, and that it has recently reached a peak. Aircraft have had to rely on maps and control tower instructions.

In more and more regions, GPS, which is based on signals transmitted to earth by 31 US satellites, has become a luxury. Eastern and northern Europe, and parts of the Middle East, are experiencing severe disruption to GPS reception, largely because of wars. Since Russia became the dominant force in Syria, is has operated a permanent GPS jammer from the port of Latakia, disrupting reception in the East Mediterranean, and since the invasion of Ukraine two years ago, the US has removed GPS coverage from both Ukraine and Russia, in order to thwart the use of missiles and UAVs that use GPS navigation.

The disruptions are carried out in two ways: jamming, which blocks signals over a certain distance; and spoofing, which is the broadcasting of fake signals that deceive a device as to its location.

In Israel, the IDF admits that it disrupts GPS signals, and research by the University of Texas claimed that the Israel Air Force operates a very powerful jammer from its control center on Mount Meron. GPS disturbances are not just the result of military operations. GPS jammers are sold online for between hundreds and thousands of dollars that can disrupt the network over large distances. A weak, one milliwatt radio transmitter can disrupt signals within a ten kilometer radius.

The phenomenon is not believed to have seriously affected the business of Waze or of sports watch producers Garmin and Polar. Since removing online advertising last summer, Waze has derived almost no revenue from its navigation app. Drivers have by now learned that they cannot rely on it in certain areas, such as in the Hadar neighborhood in Haifa, but the disruption is not complete.

Advanced Chinese alternative

"The disruptions around Russia and Ukraine are so severe that GPS experts joke that anyone sailing in the Black Sea will see Moscow’s Red Square on the map," says Eli Ariel, founder and CEO of Galileo Satellite Navigation, who in the past worked alongside the developers of the GPS system at Stanford Telecommunications, Inc. He says that the damage from the absence of GPS reception is not small. "Research financed by the US government found that a block on satellite signals for a month would cost the US economy $1 billion a day. It will be very difficult to get along without GPS location, but that reality is already with us: in Israel, navigators who have forgotten how to manage without GPS now have to guide ships into port with what there is."

Dr. Harel Menashri, head of cyber at the Holon Institute of Technology, a lecturer at the Tel Aviv University School of Public Health, and one of those responsible for setting up the cyber operation of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), says that the US Naval Academy at Annapolis has gone back to teaching navigation methods that were prevalent decades ago, such as the use of a sextant for navigation by the sun and the stars. "They realized that GPS will not live forever," Menashri says.

GPS has expanded outside the US in recent years. China has deployed a highly advanced system under the name BeiDou, with 27 satellites that are no less sophisticated than the 31 satellites in the US system. Almost every smartphone in China is connected to this network, but users outside of China with devices that are not Chinese receive BeiDou signals, sometimes at the expense of GPS. This is because most Android devices are programmed to find the best location signal automatically at any give moment, even if it does not belong to the US network. People may thus be connected to BeiDou without being aware of it. The Chinese network works best in East Asia. Outside that area, it is less accurate. iPhones do not support the Chinese satellite network.

Russia also has its own network, Glonass, based on a similar signal to that of the US network, while India, Japan, and Australia have location networks, but these are not international and focus almost entirely on the territories of these countries. The only reasonable Western alternative to GPS is the EU’s Galileo global navigation satellite system, but it has fewer satellites than the Chinese and US networks, and cannot provide a strong signal at all times. A European initiative to install location transmitters on Starlink satellites was rejected by the operator, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which prefers to focus its satellites on broadcasting Internet signals and to avoid navigation. "Those who think of switching to navigation systems such as the Chinese, European and Russian ones don’t take into account that disruption to the US GPS network blocks all the others as well," says Ariel.

Elon Musk objects

For armed forces and security services, the US is working on building protective layers that make the military frequency invulnerable. Companies such as Israel’s InfiniDome are developing systems for installation on ground vehicles and UAVs that prevent GPS jamming.

There is also a return to older technologies that served aviation and shipping until half a century ago. One is Korean technology eLoran, an upgrade to technology developed by Western militaries during the Second World War introduced because of disruptions to GPS that North Korea has been carrying out for decades. It is based on antennas placed in seaports that broadcast a strong signal that is almost unjammable. Ships and aircraft establish their positions by cross-checking beams from at least two points.

For civilian use, location by means of cellular antennas is more and more seen as the solution for urban and populated areas where there is high-quality cellular coverage. At present, this exists at a low level of accuracy, within ten meters. Despite Elon Musk’s objection to operating a satellite navigation network on Starlink satellites, many countries and academic bodies are investigating the possibility of using this network, and political pressure may make Musk compromise on the matter. Starlink represents the foreseeable future of GPS: low-altitude satellites that can broadcast a strong signal that is hard to disrupt.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 24, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Model of Chinese satellite navigation system BeiDou  credit: Reuters/Song fan
Model of Chinese satellite navigation system BeiDou credit: Reuters/Song fan
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