Blog Editor’s Note: The author of the below is President of the RNT Foundation
One GPS Mystery Solved, Another Remains
Ever since it came on-line in February 2022, the website GPSJam.org has shown what appears to be regular interference with GPS signals in Texas near San Antonio and Del Rio, and locations north and south of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Only on normal workdays, however. Not on weekends or holidays. Furthermore, whatever was happening also took time off between the Christmas and New Year holidays GPSJam.org also shows similar, though less regular, activity in New Mexico. Experts say this is easily explained as White Sands Missile Range is often the site of electronic warfare training and tests. These are always announced in advance in FAA Notices to Air Missions (NOTAMs) when any interference with GPS reception is anticipated.
The regular patterns observed in Texas and Oklahoma and the lack of NOTAMs led some experts to speculate the source could be inadvertent interference from a commercial or government activity. Said one former official, “It’s just the kind of pattern you see from large organizations. They are off every weekend, federal holidays, and around Christmas.”
GPSJam.org is the brainchild of aviation analyst John Wiseman. The site uses crowdsourced ADS-B reports gathered by the ADS-B Exchange and displays it on a world map. Areas in yellow indicate that between two and ten percent of ADS-B reports for the day had low navigation accuracy. Areas in red had ten percent or more.
Information from the site has proved useful in identifying patterns of regular GPS jamming and spoofing in Russia and other conflict areas around the globe.
The workday patterns in Texas and Oklahoma have appeared on GPSJam.org displays since the site went live in February 2022.
GPS Interference and Aviation
Minor interference with GPS signals is fairly common. GPS jamming devices, while illegal to use, are inexpensive and easy to obtain from vendors on the internet.
Truck drivers wanting to defeat their company’s fleet tracking system, people concerned about being tracked by the government or others, even ministers trying to keep parishioners from texting during sermons – all have been known to use such devices.
Most GPS interference is unintentional. A two-year European Union study found hundreds of thousands of potentially harmful signals, but judged only about ten percent to be intentional. The rest were the inadvertent byproduct of poorly tuned electrical and electronic equipment.
While most GPS interference is unintentional and localized, spurious signals powerful enough to noticeably impact airborne operations are not unknown.
In two separate incidents last year strong interference near the Denver and Dallas airports impacted air traffic, each for more than a day. The Denver incident lasted for 33 hours before authorities found the source and shut it down. Air traffic was disrupted at Dallas for 44 hours according to government sources, though researchers found the actual interference only lasted for 24 hours. The source of the disruption was never identified.
In 2019 a passenger aircraft was almost lost due to GPS interference while on approach to Sun Valley, Idaho’s Friedman Memorial Airport. As the aircraft flew a GPS-based approach in smoke and haze, the interfering signal was just strong enough to lure it off course and toward a mountain. Fortunately, a sharp-eyed radar controller hundreds of miles away spotted the problem and intervened in time. The source of the interference was never identified.
As a result of the Sun Valley incident and input from numerous aviation groups, the International Civil Aviation Organization told its members there was an “urgent need to address harmful interferences” to satnav signals.
Texas and Oklahoma Mystery Solved
A researcher at Stanford University finally solved the puzzle of the strange recurring sequence of reports from Texas and Oklahoma.
While investigating last October’s GPS interference event near the Dallas airport, PhD candidate Zixi Liu noticed aircraft outside the main area of effect also reporting low Navigation Integrity Category (NIC) values. This began before and continued after complaints from commercial airlines about GPS not being available at Dallas-Fort Worth. These aircraft were in the same general area of Texas, but far enough away that there were large areas between them and Dallas that did not contain any reports with low NIC values.
At the same time MS Liu was also investigating anomalous ADS-B reports near San Antonio and Del Rio, Texas. She discovered in all three cases the reports of low NIC values were coming from military training aircraft regularly used for aerobatics. Other aircraft nearby reported good NIC values and showed no evidence interference.
In a recent presentation to the Institute of Navigation, she postulated that Interference with GPS signals was not the cause of the low navigation integrity reports. Rather, the rapid maneuvers and unusual aircraft attitudes of aerobatics caused the airplanes’ navigation receivers to intermittently lose lock on signals from GPS satellites. This caused their ADS-B equipment to report low navigation integrity.
Having solved that mystery, Ms. Liu continues to work on her original question – identifying the source of October’s 24-hour GPS disruption near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.
Mr. Dana A. Goward is the President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation and a former US Coast Guard helicopter pilot.