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Thinking differently about location and time data

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The UK needs to think differently about the use of location and time data to continue to remain one of the world leaders in Position Navigation and Timing (PNT) technology.

It needs to establish the means to have a truly national strategy regarding PNT across all domains and markets, to be able to have a consistent approach across industrial sectors and government to ensure that our critical infrastructure and vital services are protected against the loss of its PNT information.

sat nav device

Why should anyone care as this is pretty niche right?

We all use Position Navigation and Timing (PNT) information every day, often without realising.

It is one of those hidden utilities, like power, that is just there and you don’t really notice until it’s gone.

Many things we sometimes take for granted need PNT to be able to do their jobs properly, such as:

  • mobile phones
  • power
  • banking
  • “satnavs”
  • digital TV
  • satellite communications
  • even companies like Uber and Eddie Stobart

It really is an underpinning technology, or more properly, a set of technologies, and enables other more familiar technologies and systems to work properly.

thinking differently

What is PNT?

PNT information is actually just that, information about your position or time that can help you navigate (from position to position) or to determine your time relevant to an accepted global standard or within a system, each function be aligned or synchronised to each other.

It enables you to do things like:

  • synchronise or timestamp a financial transaction
  • ensure that your mobile data doesn’t get lost
  • monitor for faults on power lines (yes, time is crucial to doing that)

The information can come from a number of places, the most common is from satellites in space, using GPS or looking to the future one of the other satellite systems that can provide time, such as Europe’s Galileo or Russia’s GLONASS or more likely, a combination of at least 2 of these.

It is relatively easy to figure out position and time from these systems, and they are very commonly used as they are cheap to install and use. However, there is an issue with signals from satellites which is becoming more of a problem.

Why do we need to think differently about PNT?

As the President of the Royal Institute of Navigation recently noted in a letter to the Economist:

satellite [PNT] systems rely on a weak signal, comparable to the power of a small domestic light bulb, out in space. Those signals are vulnerable to corruption and jamming, accidental or malign, by hackers, terrorists and Mother Nature, the latter in the form of solar winds.

Vulnerability has the potential for trouble

What this means is we cannot rely on satellite based PNT such as GPS, no matter how good they are or have been; the future is different to today.

Having our critical systems depend wholly or exclusively on something with a vulnerability like this is a potential for trouble.

How do we need to think differently about PNT?

Many nations have and continue to recognise this, and are investing in and delivering other ways to provide PNT information.

Atomic clocks have for some years been a way of protecting against outages of the satellite signal, and there are increasing levels of investment in this technology including in the UK with the Quantum Technologies programme.

New technologies are also being developed to help provide protection & resilience for the PNT information against the increased threats of:

  • interference
  • spoofing (faking the signal) cyber-attack at all system levels
  • natural phenomenon

These technologies, such as terrestrial (non satellite) position and timing systems, using existing radio signals in new ways (signals-of-opportunity) and new ways to combine different sensors (hybrid navigation) are being used to underpin and enable products and services to be delivered, even in challenging technical and environmental conditions.

strengths and weaknesses

Understanding strengths and weaknesses

The UK needs to understand all aspects of these new technologies:

  • government and industry need to understand their respective strengths and weaknesses, determine the best path forwards for the UK resilience and economic growth and their roles within it
  • academia needs to grow the skills base for PNT technologies, including space based PNT

Awareness of the challenges, technical and environmental needs to be increased in the industrial base; too often organisations consider they do not have a problem when in fact they are critically dependent upon PNT.

One option is that a joined up strategy could be considered and guidance and direction for these areas. This strategy could be led on the government side by a senior level committee, or perhaps kicked off by adding an appropriate entry to the National Risk Register.

On an industrial level, business continuity plans and corporate risk registers should be invited to include the loss of PNT as a risk.

Innovate UK will be key to this joined up process due to the cross-government nature of our operation and our close working with industry and academia, the focus on doing what is difficult and the ability to invest in new technologies for the long term.

You can follow Andy on Twitter @InnovateAndy

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