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What would happen if Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) were temporarily unavailable?

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Innovate UK’s mission is to stimulate and accelerate economic growth for the UK. To deliver this, we:

  • address market failures in the areas we operate
  • build on those areas of strength in the UK
  • work across Government and research organisations

To be effective we occasionally need to commission reports to be able to help us determine our efforts and to inform us if our work is in the right areas.

Preparing UK for resilience and robustness

We recently teamed up with the UK Space Agency and the Royal Institute of Navigation to commission a report considering aspects of what would happen if we no longer had access to certain signals from space, a scenario that is looked at from time to time to help the UK from a resilience and robustness perspective.

GPS is only 1 of 4 Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS)

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Ask an average person on a typical UK street and they’ll probably tell you that GPS is a satellite-based navigation system that they use to work out where they are, and how to get somewhere. But it is so much more than that …

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is one – albeit the original and most utilised – of four Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) that provide positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) information via satellites orbiting in space. This information allows users with a compatible receiver (e.g. smartphone) to determine their position, velocity and precise universal and local time.

We are heavily reliant on GNSS

This capability underpins much of everyday life in the UK, as in all modern economies, the free-at-point-of-use and global availability features of the civilian open service has driven a growing proliferation of applications and use of GNSS.

Applications that use GNSS are widespread, but the full extent and nature of use, as well as their resilience to a GNSS outage, has not been well understood.

This gap in knowledge is concerning, as GNSS is subject to various vulnerabilities to failure. Given the coincidence of widespread use (including safety-critical applications) and vulnerability, the question naturally follows.

What would happen if GNSS were temporarily unavailable?

We decided to look at this from the economic standpoint, not something done before for the UK; many reports have looked at the technology and what would happen in the event of losing the GNSS signals, and some reports have looked at this in the United States, but not for the UK.

Accordingly, Innovate UK in collaboration with the UK Space Agency and Royal Institute of Navigation commissioned London Economics to answer the following question:

What would be the economic impact on the UK through the loss, howsoever caused, of GNSS, for up to five days?

More specifically, there are five objectives:

  • Identify economic sectors and industries supported by GNSS in the UK
  • Quantify the economic benefit that GNSS technology and services bring to the UK
  • Estimate the economic impact to the UK (government and private sector) of a disruption to GNSS functionality of up to five days
  • Identify the cost and effectiveness of mitigation strategies
  • High-level assessment of the impact of UK public funding of GNSS

The reason this study takes the five-day loss of GNSS as the input is to align with scenarios within the UK National Risk Assessment (NRA), Business Continuity Planning Assumptions and National Risk Register for both GNSS and for critical infrastructure, and was a recommendation in The Royal Academy of Engineering report in 2011 which looked at the reliance and vulnerabilities of Global Navigation Space Systems. It represents a reasonable worst-case scenario.

An input to risk based decisions around GNSS

The aim of the report is firstly to help Innovate UK and the UK Space Agency with their work, but wider in terms of UK and International Governments, to be an input to their strategies and activity.

Also for industry and researchers – to help those who are using GNSS understand their needs for resilience and robustness at a technology and systems level, to provide an input to the risk based decisions they take on courses of action.

The findings of the report are, as the reader will determine, relevant for different people in different ways. Some will be able to use the information directly to take actions, or perhaps policy makers can use the report to inform future policy decisions.

We are already providing right funding & support mechanisms to mitigate the risk found

Innovate UK has analysed the findings and believes its approach to funding and supporting the communities which are affected is the right one.

Companies can apply for funding to improve their products and services, can engage with us to help find the right connections to solve problems or can use Innovate UK’ s family of Catapult centres and the Knowledge Transfer Network for the support they can offer.

Additionally, the UK Space Agency has invested up to €30m into the Navigation Innovation and Support Programme (NAVISP) at the European Space Agency, this enables companies to address problems and new product and technology developments using the funding and expertise of the European Space Agency as well.

You can follow Andy on Twitter @InnovateAndy

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Connor G posted on

    Is this something planned for by Central Government? It'd be interesting to hear about the planning for technical and infrastructure failings on such a major scale like this post highlights the possibility of.