Revamping an old technology to go where GPS signals cannot reach

Filed Under: Featured, Mobile, Security threats

Maze. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.Every day, GPS navigation systems are at work around the globe, guiding and tracking lorries, trucks, mobile phones, passenger vehicles, aerospace vessels and more, in spite of whatever the weather throws at them, as long as they're in line of sight with at least four satellites.

But while they're ubiquitous, GPS devices are also fragile.

That's because they run on feeble signals that can be spoofed and thrown off course by stronger signals (it's been demonstrated with an $80 million yacht and a drone).

Beyond spoofing, GPS can be swamped entirely by stronger signals coming from GPS jammers - low-power, pocket-sized devices that drown out signals going to GPS receivers.

You can pick up such jammers cheap on the internet, where they're sold under premises such as helping to silence the clamor that plagues noisy classrooms, theaters, restaurants, or business meetings.

They're also used by commercial drivers who don't want their employers tracking their every move, domestic violence victims who don't want to be found, and criminals who use jammers to intercept valuable cargo loads or commit other crimes.

A recent example: last month, US authorities arrested what they said was a gang of high-tech burglars who allegedly cut telephone lines to disable alarms and used cellular telephone signal jamming devices to stop the back-up alarms from notifying the alarm companies’ central stations.

Beyond enabling crooks, jamming can have dangerous consequences.

In August 2013, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a $32K penalty for using a GPS jamming device.

Michele Ellison, Chief of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, cites the potential consequences of GPS jamming and the FCC's motives behind jacking up punishment for using jammers:

While people who use jammers may think they are only silencing disruptive conversations or disabling unwanted GPS capabilities, they could also be preventing a scared teenager from calling 9-1-1, an elderly person from placing an urgent call to a doctor, or a rescue team from homing in on the location of a severely injured person. The price for one person's moment of peace or privacy could be the safety and well-being of others.

Beyond fines and warnings, communications experts have been seeking technological improvements in GPS that could overcome jammers.

Within the past year, the UK has been ramping up one such technology.

It's called eLORAN - short for enhanced LOng-RAnge Navigation - and it enables navigation by triangulating via low-frequency/longwave radio signals transmitted by fixed land-based radio beacons.

LORAN has been around for a while, having first been used in military operations in World War II, but the growing popularity of GPS pushed LORAN out in the 1990s.

The "enhanced" part of eLORAN comes from more recent improvements in the technology, including increased accuracy of traditional LORAN, achieved via advances in receiver design and transmission characteristics.

One such improvement is the ability of eLORAN receivers to now use signals from all stations in range, up to 40 stations.

Dana Goward, president and executive director of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (RNT) Foundation, which supports adoption of eLoran, told InsideGNSS that the eLORAN signal is about 1.3 million times more powerful than the GPS signal - far too brawny a signal to be tripped up by GPS jammers.

On top of that, the signals can, unlike GPS, reach underground, under water, and into buildings, InsideGNSS reports.

Here's how it's described by David Last, a British expert on positioning, navigation and timing systems (PNT), as quoted by InsideGNSS:

I draw the analogy by saying that Loran in its original form, which a lot of people remember, came from the days of black and white television. What we’ve got here [with eLoran] is still television, it’s still Loran — but it’s digital. It’s high-definition. It’s color. It’s big screen. It’s all of those things.

On top of that, eLORAN signals are seen as an excellent backup to GPS signals, being impervious not only to whatever a jammer throws at them but also to asteroids.

The Telegraph reports that the UK is pioneering the use of eLORAN for navigation.

The UK has, actually, been building eLORAN infrastructure since at least 2007, when the UK Department for Transport, via the General Lighthouse Authorities, awarded a 15-year contract to provide a state-of-the-art eLORAN service to improve the safety of mariners in the UK and Western Europe.

More recently, the General Lighthouse Authorities last year became the first in the world to deploy eLORAN to help counter the threat of GPS jamming for shipping companies operating both passenger and cargo services along the south and east coasts.

The technology is expected to be up and running and foiling GPS jammers by this summer.

Meanwhile, the US is following suit.

According to GPS World, President Barack Obama last month signed the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) for 2014 - an act that shows "an acute awareness" of the vulnerability of space systems to navigational disruption, it reports.

It sounds like the US is gearing up to protect national security, space systems and more with the unjammable technology.

Will it protect us from burglars snipping our phone lines and jamming our backup alarms?

We'll stay tuned - no pun intended! - and let you know.

Image of maze courtesy of Shutterstock.

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6 Responses to Revamping an old technology to go where GPS signals cannot reach

  1. Doodle Dandy · 160 days ago

    How long before the yanks nick our idea and make all the money out of it ?

    • Steve-o · 160 days ago

      Fox news article from March 17, 2010 mentions the Bush administration working on eLORAN in 2008, though apparently there was no follow through (according to public knowledge, which is slim with our gov't). The article is called "GPS Jammers Illegal, Dangerous, and Very Easy to Buy", by John Brandon.

      So... who nicked who's idea? I'm kidding. The idea is obviously out there and techs are working on it.

      BTW - the article states it's illegal to use one, but not to buy one in the US. I wonder if that's changed in the last few years.

  2. Anonymous · 160 days ago

    GPS jamming and cell phone signal jamming are really two different problems. If the burglars cut your phone lines and jam the cell signals, your alarm system can't use megawatts to override the jammer. I guess we need to start installing backup signal flares and carrier pigeon release hatches.

    • Anonymous · 160 days ago

      Actually, it's not the alarm system end that's the problem. The jammer makes it impossible to HEAR the cell tower(s) and therefore the alarm system doesn't think there is a service available to call out to.

  3. David Pottage · 160 days ago

    LORAN might be more powerfull that GPS, but I am sure it would be just as easy to jam or spoof.

    If anything more easy to jam becuase GPS is designed to work far below the noise floor, so recievers are already equiped with advanced signal processing hardware to pull the signal from the noise. Unlike LORAN which is strictly analoge and relies on comparing the arival time and phase of radio pulses from different transmiters.

    That is not to say that LORAN is useless. Low frequency signals that penitrate buildings will be a good thing, though by my calculations the 100 kHz signal will have a wavelenght of arround 3km so it will be hard to build an efficent small antena that will fit into a portable device.

  4. Ian · 160 days ago

    Any radio frequency signal can be jammed if you throw enough power at it but eLoran is far more resistant than anything else available for navigation and timing at present and the modern enhancements make spoofing virtually impossible too. That's why South Korea are rolling out eLoran as a GPS alternative as it can stand up to the massive jamming coming from the North. No pocket or car jammer would have any effect on it at all either.

    The US had it but Obama switched it off in 2010 as a cost cutting measure -Duh!

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.