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  • Writer's pictureRichard Harvey

GPS - a question of sovereignty

My first Gresham lecture of 2021 talks a little about the history and nature of GPS and, additionally, the worldwide combination of systems known as the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). As I mentioned in a previous blog, it is a little hard to unravel who invented GPS. There is quite a strong case to be made that GPS is a satellite version of the British Gee direction finding system. In which case Robert Dippy, the inventor of Gee ought to get a mention, FOR GPS, the Queens Award for Engineering singled out Bradford Parkinson, Hugo Fuehof, Richard Schwartz and James Spilker and there is no doubt in my mind that they made very significant contributions but it’s a system and, as they acknowledge in their award acceptance, modern engineering systems are a team effort.

And what a team effort it was. GPS has led to fantastic utility for us civilians but it started as a system designed for the US military with a small, low-resolution signal, that might be used by commerce and the general public. Nowadays civilian use dominates and several systems have slotted in around GPS to create GNSS the Global Navigation Satellite System. Among these systems are GLONASS, the Russian system, Galileo the EU system and several regional variants including systems based in India, China and Japan.

Countries such as Canada, Australia and now the UK do not have their own GNSS system. The UK was part of Galileo but I row blew up over cost during Brexit and it was resolved by the UK leaving the Galileo programme. What may have been missed, is the UK also left EGNOS which is the Galileo augmentation system. EGNOS consists of ground systems which measure positional errors on land, compute corrections and send them up to another satellite which transmits corrections down to users. It is for users who really need not only higher accuracy but a more insightful indication if the positional readings are reliable. With EGNOS it is safe for a pilot to land an aircraft using onboard GPS kit. Without it the pilot uses a more elderly system which is a set of radio beams mounted at the airport. If you are landing at an established airport in the UK then you will now be using the older system. If are landing at a smaller UK airport that does not have the ground-based guidance, then you will re-routed to a different airport or you will take a chance.

It’s a strange situation because the EGNOS signal is transmitted to the UK, and there are EGNOS ground stations in the UK, providing correctional signals. But it seems the Government and the Civil Aviation Authority have ruled that it must not be used. Pilots are obedient so I suppose its use for aviation will stop.

More importantly the UK has lost any decision making power it had in Galileo. The UK is now, to quote Tennesse Williams, “dependent on the kindness of strangers.” It is unique among the permanent members of the UN Security Council in having no sovereignty over any part of the GNSS. That position is sufficiently alarming for Russia, China, India and Japan to have developed their own systems. Japan is an interesting compromise. Although it is quite difficult to conceive situations in which Japan’s foreign policy was so objectionable that they had a falling out with both the EU and the USA. Nevertheless, they decided they needed some insurance. Their system, QZSS, is a GPS clone and operates alongside GPS to fill in coverage holes and provide some augmentation. It’s a canny solution as it builds upon the system of a close ally, the USA, but provides some autonomy and independence in a cost effective way.

For the UK there have been a variety of leaks about a new British alternative - we certainly have much of the know-how as most of the Galileo payload was assembled in the UK and the grandfather of all hyperbolic radio navigation systems was Gee which was a British invention. Now we are forbidden from assembling Galileo due to national security concerns, so a decision on a British GPS needs to be made quickly - otherwise it will be too late to enter the game.

It’s a rather paradoxical situation in which a concern about British sovereignty, led to a substantially diminished sovereignty over something that really matters (rather than, say, he shape of our sausages).

Apologies to readers outside the UK to whom Brexit is a mega-bore - normal service will be resumed next month!

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