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Note: The author is President of the RNT Foundation.

Increasing GNSS interference: UK and EU warn aviation

Est. reading time: 2:30

April 11, 2023  – By 

“Since February 2022, there has been an increase in jamming and/or possible spoofing of GNSS. This issue particularly affects the geographical areas surrounding conflict zones but is also present in the eastern Mediterranean, Baltic Sea and Arctic area,” the European Union Aviation Safety Agency stated in a Feb. 17 safety information bulletin.

On April 4, the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority followed with its own advisory adding that, in addition to the year-over-year increase, interference has intensified in recent months citing the same geographic areas of concern.

Both advisories list impacts to aircraft that include:

  • loss of ability to use GNSS for waypoint navigation
  • loss of area navigation (RNAV) approach capability
  • inability to conduct or maintain Required Navigation Performance (RNP) operations, including RNP and RNP Authorization Required (RNP AR) approaches
  • triggering of terrain warnings, possibly with pull up commands
  • inconsistent aircraft position on the navigation display
  • loss of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), wind shear, terrain and surface functionalities
  • failure or degradation of a variety of air traffic management service and aircraft systems that use GNSS as a time reference
  • potential airspace infringements and/or route deviations due to GNSS degradation.

Airspace infringement can be a real concern, especially in conflict zones or near belligerent nations.

GPS was first authorized for civil use because of just such an incident. In 1983, a Korean airliner accidentally trespassed into Soviet airspace and was shot down. Despite the fact that the GPS constellation had not yet been declared fully operational, in September of that year President Ronald Regan authorized its use in civil applications to help avoid similar tragedies in the future.

GPS-based navigation for aircraft was subsequently found to be so efficient and successful that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) planned to eliminate all the terrestrial navigation beacons it maintains for air traffic and rely entirely upon GPS. Despite a 2001 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center cautioning against such an action, this plan was not abandoned until several years later when an aircraft crossing the Atlantic lost GPS reception.

In recent years, aviation industry concerns about interference with GPS and other GNSS signals have intensified. These concerns have even included planned and announced military exercises that cause interference. Aviation industry groups have complained that the exercises disrupt and are too costly to their operations.

Safety of life has also been a concern.

In 2019 a commercial passenger aircraft was nearly lost to GPS interference in Sun Valley, Idaho. Flying a GPS-based approach through the mountains to the airport, low-level interference caused the aircraft to deviate from its course. In the words of the safety report filed with NASA, had a sharp-eyed radar controller hundreds of miles away not spotted the problem and intervened, “…that flight crew and the passengers would be dead, I have no doubt.”

This incident was cited by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in a filing later that year urging international action. Along with other groups, it pressed the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) concerning “An Urgent Need to Address Harmful Interferences with GNSS.” In 2020, ICAO issued a letter to all member states recommending action.

Similar concerns have been expressed by other international bodies as well.

In 2021 a EUROCONTROL seminar said that there had been a 2,000% increase in GNSS RFI incidents since 2018 as measured by voluntary incident reporting. Also, that 38.5% of European en-route traffic operated in regions regularly affected by interference.

The International Telecommunications Union, the U.N. body responsible for coordinating spectrum use, issued its own concern and warning in 2022. It cited more than 10,000 aviation-related incidents the previous year and, like ICAO, urged member states to take action to prevent such occurrences.

While interference with GNSS signals is unquestionably a concern for commercial aircraft, it is perhaps even more of a safety risk for smaller, general aviation users.

The only electronic navigation aids in many of these aircraft are consumer-grade GPS receivers. Since these are not certified by the FAA, they are only officially authorized for use to help pilots maintain “situational awareness” while they fly using visual reference with the ground. Interference with GNSS signals can cause disorientation and could result in aircraft becoming lost, running out of fuel, or straying into prohibited areas.