Do we rely too much on GPS?

There is an article in on the BBC website today that suggests that the UK is becoming increasingly reliant on GPS.  The article points out that GPS is now used as a critical component in many businesses such as freight transportation the emergency services.

The BBC article uses a report from the  Royal Academy of Engineering as its main source. This highlights a number of issues with the current reliance on GPS.  It states that receivers should be able to pick up signals from a variety of sources and use these to determine position.  So GPS revivers that can access more than one satellite network are considered to be more robust, but most smart phones can approximate position from wifi hotspots.  This is certainly more robust and would allow positioning to continue if part of the GPS satellite network had perhaps been knocked out by a solar flare.

Now some of you in the Geospatial sector may consider that this report states the obvious, however it is often to document the obvious so that those who are less well informed can understand that GPS is not a fail-safe system and backup options should be available in advance.

You might also want to read a recent Go-Geo news item that highlighted how planned expansion of wireless broadband networks could compromise GPS receivers ability to resolve GPS signals. The fear was that air travel safety would be adversely effected and that there had been a lack of a through independent investigation into the effect of such a network.

What other systems are we overly reliant on? Well the internet springs to mind.  If you like techie novels then “Halting State” by Charles Stross is well worth a read. This looks at how vulnerable a technology dependant society can become.  Set in the future but written a few years ago, it is interesting to see how far along the road Charles Stross’s vision of 2018.

EDIT (9th March 2011):

Since writing this post on Tuesday, i have come across the following New Scientist article on GPS jamming via SlashGeo The article outlines just how easy it is to jam GPS signals and cause widespread disruption with simple, inexpensive bits of kit.  A $30 radio jammer can disrupt the ability of GPS receivers to fix position for several kilometres. The GPS signal is so weak it is quite susceptible to jammers.  So, say a delivery driver doesn’t want their boss to know exactly where they are, they buy a jammer and activate it on their dashboard.  The GPS receiver in the vehicle is then unable to fix its position and the boss can’t track his driver. But, the jammer could also knock out ever GPS receiver in a 2km diameter of the vehicle.  The disruption caused by this will depend on the location of the vehicle.  The article is worth a read as it outlines just how dependant modern society is on GPS.  I didn’t realise that banks and stock markets use the GPS timestamp (generated by atomic clocks so super accurate) to timestamp transactions.

Anyway, scaremongering over, but don’t expect this issue to just disappear.

Sources:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20202-gps-chaos-how-a-30-box-can-jam-your-life.html?page=1

http://slashgeo.org/2011/03/08/30-GPS-Jammer-Can-Wreak-Havok

About Addy Pope

Addy is a member of the GeoData team at EDINA and work on services such as GoGeo, ShareGeo and the FieldtripGB app. Addy has over 10 years experience as a geospatial analyst. Addy tweets as @go_geo
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