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Op-ed: Dr. Jim Wyse

Canada’s radio-navigation infrastructure needs to 'trump' Donald’s made-in-America GPS

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial's leadership and expertise in cold ocean and Arctic science, technology and society (COASTS).

By Dr. Jim Wyse

President Bill Clinton’s May 1, 2000, announcement of the unrestricted availability of highly precise global positioning system (GPS) signals precipitated the rise of a multibillion dollar industry producing GPS applications in areas as disparate as marine transportation, theft prevention, emergency response and even social media.

No human demographic remains untouched by the rapid proliferation of GPS technologies.

Firmly entrenched

From toddlers with wearable trackers to elders with location-enabled medical alerts and those in between who monitor their exercise regimes and navigate the nation’s roadways, an astonishing variety of GPS applications is now firmly entrenched in day-to-day Canadian life.

Skeptics proffering that GPS was certainly novel but decidedly faddish have fallen silent. Clinton’s prediction that GPS would become a global utility serving humankind around the world has firmly come to pass.

The breathtaking success of GPS has led to the realization that our reliance upon GPS technology is now as deeply embedded in what we do as GPS is in many of the technologies we use to do it.

“There are other sources of GPS-related risk that potentially affect a nation’s domestic, commercial and military activities.”

As awareness of our deepening GPS dependence grows, calls for options and alternatives have also increased.

The risks associated with this dependence range from the technical to the political: GPS ownership by a U.S. government agency implies exposure to the vicissitudes of internal budgetary processes and political pressures; GPS-guided weapons make GPS infrastructure a target of U.S. enemies; GPS signal weakness renders it vulnerable to deliberate jamming and spoofing (with North Korea thought to have highly advanced GPS capabilities in both respects); GPS’s orbital-based transmission components carry not just the possibility of destruction from hostile military action but also the risk of Kesseler Syndrome, a destructive process dramatically illustrated in the 2013 movie Gravity wherein the high velocity debris that increasingly clutters orbital space devastates the GPS satellite array; and there are other sources of GPS-related risk that potentially affect a nation’s domestic, commercial and military activities.

Risky reliance

Any nation succumbing to the easy economics of relying on a sole-source technology from a supplier beyond its control for the provision of radio-navigation infrastructure clearly risks some very down-to-earth consequences.

Nations running afoul of U.S. favour risk the imposition of targeted GPS-signal degradation threatened by Clinton in his May 2000 statement or becoming a billing opportunity by President Trump for GPS services.

The former has already been realized by those engaged in anti-U.S. hostilities, whilst the latter is an abiding concern for nations, Canada among them, who have abandoned the deployment of marine radio-navigation infrastructure and now rely on the magnanimity of another country for its provision.

“Canada has little more than a fragmented collection of facilities that includes . . .  some very limited radio-navigation infrastructure in remote coastal and Arctic areas.”

American engineer Brad Parkinson, known as the “father of GPS,” has himself recognized the risk of GPS reliance and supports initiatives to develop and deploy redundant positioning systems, both orbital and terrestrial. Several nations are re-introducing modernized versions of their erstwhile terrestrial positioning systems, among them South Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom and even the U.S.

In stark contrast, Canada shut down its coastal radio-navigation transmitters over a decade ago and, except for no-password GPS services thanks to our American neighbours, Canada has little more than a fragmented collection of facilities that includes cellular and WiFi signals of opportunity in urban areas, on-request direction-finding services in selected high-traffic marine areas, and some very limited radio-navigation infrastructure in remote coastal and Arctic areas.

Even current GPS capability has its limitations in providing usable signals at high latitudes where ionospheric effects and unfavourable satellite signal geometry present special challenges to coastal navigation in polar regions.

‘Strength in diversity’

This writer hopes that creative minds will recognize the opportunity side of Canada’s GPS reliance problem, including the challenges of navigating along northern coasts, and that they do so with the realization that the problem’s solution space must include a variety of navigational approaches and technologies if the excessive level of risk associated with the present sole source system is to be avoided in the future.

To borrow a phrase from current political discourse, there is “strength in diversity” wherein a wide variety of made-in-Canada navigational solutions will position our national radio-navigation infrastructure for minimal dependence, resilient service to coastal and northern regions and substantial immunity from a billing-prone U.S. president.

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