Graphic: Getty Images

Blog Editor’s Note: While not a lot in the below is “newsworthy” for many of our readers, it’s a good compilation. It is also encouraging for all of us to see this issue being framed and presented for a general audience. An audience that, for the most part, has no idea of the vulnerability of GPS and other satnav.

It is also interesting that eLoran is mentioned toward the end of the piece. The UK implemented and certified eLoran for use along its east coast before its European partners shut down their portions of the system. This was to show their unqualified support for the very expensive and, at that time, struggling, Galileo project.

Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and South Korea all have versions of Loran in operation. This gives them (and Japan which benefits from coverage by their neighbors’ systems) the ability to weather GNSS problems (solar flare, cyber, deliberate jamming attack, etc.) much better than the US and Europe.

A terrestrial backup will have much more utility than its use for contingencies. To be a good “backup” it will necessarily have much different characteristics than GNSS to ensure it is available when satnav is not. These differences will be leveraged by engineers for a whole new set of PNT tools and capabilities.

But even if “the backup” does nothing more than ensure the safety of hundreds of millions of people against the day space is unavailable, it will be more than worth it. 

Our friend Sally Basker recalls a line from “The Blind Side” – “The first check you write each month is for the mortgage. The second is for the insurance.”

The US and Europe have built very large and expensive houses. Without insurance and an alternative shelter, their populations will suffer greatly in the severe weather to come.

Could the world cope if GPS stopped working?

  • 6 November 2019

What would happen if GPS – the Global Positioning System – stopped working?

For a start, we would all have to engage our brains and pay attention to the world around us when getting from A to B. Perhaps this would be no bad thing: we’d be less likely to drive into rivers or over cliffs through misplaced trust in our navigation devices.

Pick your own favourite story about the kind of idiocy only GPS can enable. Mine is the Swedish couple who misspelled the Italian island of Capri and turned up hundreds of miles away in Carpi, asking where the sea was.

But these are the exceptions.

Devices that use GPS usually stop us getting lost. If it failed, the roads would be clogged with drivers slowing to peer at signs or stopping to consult maps. If your commute involves a train, there’d be no information boards to tell you when to expect the next arrival.

Phone for a taxi, and you’d find a harassed operator trying to keep track of her fleet by calling the drivers. Open the Uber app, and – well, you get the picture.

With no GPS, emergency services would start struggling: operators wouldn’t be able to locate callers from their phone signal, or identify the nearest ambulance or police car.

There would be snarl-ups at ports: container cranes need GPS to unload ships.

Gaps could appear on supermarket shelves as “just-in-time” logistics systems judder to a halt. Factories could stand idle because their inputs didn’t arrive just in time either.

Farming, construction, fishing, surveying – these are other industries mentioned by a UK government report that pegs the cost of GPS going down at about $1bn (£820m) a day for the first five days.

If it lasted much longer, we might start worrying about the resilience of a whole load of other systems that might not have occurred to you if you think of GPS as a location service.

It is that, but it’s also a time service.