GPS Backup: The potential of low orbit tracking

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GPS Backup: The potential of low orbit tracking

GPS Backup: The potential of low orbit tracking

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Several companies are developing and deploying alternative positioning, navigating, and timing technologies to meet the needs of transport and energy operators, wireless communications companies, and financial services firms.
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      Quantumrun Foresight
    • June 16, 2022

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    The global positioning system (GPS) plays a crucial role in providing positional, navigational, and timing (PNT) data to different companies and organizations worldwide, who leverage this information to make operational decisions. 

    GPS Backup context

    Companies that are investing billions of dollars in developing self-driving cars, delivery drones, and urban air taxis rely on accurate and dependable location data to smoothly manage their operations. However, for example, while GPS-level data can locate a smartphone within a radius of 4.9 meters (16 feet), this distance is not accurate enough for the self-driving car industry. Autonomous vehicle companies are targeting location accuracy up to 10 millimeters, with larger distances posing significant safety and operational challenges in real-world environments.

    The reliance of different industries on GPS data is so widespread that disrupting or manipulating GPS data or signals can jeopardize national and economic security. In the United States (US), the Trump administration issued an executive order in 2020 that gave the Department of Commerce the authority to identify threats to the US’ existing PNT systems and directed that government procurement processes take these threats into account. The US Department of Homeland Security also collaborates with the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency so that the country’s power grid, emergency services, and other vital infrastructure are not entirely reliant on GPS.

    The drive to expand PNT availability beyond the GPS saw TrustPoint, a startup focused on developing a global navigational satellite system (GNSS) founded in 2020. It received $2 million in seed funding in 2021. Xona Space Systems, formed in 2019 in San Mateo, California, is pursuing the same project. TrustPoint and Xona plan to launch small satellite constellations into low orbit to provide global PNT services independently of existing GPS operators and GNSS constellations. 

    Disruptive impact

    The emergence of differentiated GNSS systems may lead industries that rely on PNT data to form commercial partnerships with different providers, creating market differentiation and competition within the PNT and GNSS industries. The existence of different GNSS systems may necessitate the creation of a global regulator or benchmark so that the data leveraged by GNSS systems can be verified against these standards. 

    Governments that have previously relied on GPS data may consider creating their own PNT systems (supported by internally developed GNSS infrastructure) so that they can benefit from data and information independence. Countries can further use their newly developed PNT systems to form relationships with other countries seeking to align themselves with particular nation blocks for social, political, or economic reasons. Technology companies in countries developing independent PNT systems may receive increased funding from national governments for this purpose, boosting job growth within the telecommunications and technology industries.

    Implications of new GPS technologies being developed

    The wider implications of PNT data being provided from different sources may include:

    • Governments developing their own PNT systems for specific military purposes.
    • Various nations forbidding PNT satellites from opposing countries or regional blocs from orbiting above their borders.
    • Unlocking billions of dollars worth of economic activity as technologies, like drones and autonomous vehicles, will become more reliable and safe for use in a wider array of applications.
    • Low-orbit GNSS systems becoming the predominant way of accessing PNT data for operational purposes.
    • The emergence of cybersecurity firms that offer PNT data protection as a client service line.
    • New startups emerging that specifically take advantage of new PNT networks to create novel products and services.

    Questions to comment on

    • Should a global PNT standard be established, or should different companies and countries be allowed to develop their own PNT data systems? Why?
    • How would different PNT standards impact consumer confidence in products that rely on PNT data?

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