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New Alternatives to GPS


Beyond GPS

Most boaters have come to rely on a satellite-navigation system run by the U.S. government, but soon there may be other choices in the mix.

Think back, if you will, to 1973. Richard Nixon was in the White House. U.S. troops were leaving Vietnam, and Bill Gates was just leaving school. A cell phone cost $4,000, a gallon of gas cost 40 cents, Miller introduced Lite beer, and the Department of Defense launched the project that would eventually become GPS.

GPS is old technology—the same vintage as MS-DOS, if you can believe it. But there’s a $5.5 billion upgrade on the way, with third-generation satellites already in build, to move it into the Windows 8 era. And there are other contenders snapping at its heels.


GPS is here to stay with satellites in the pipeline. But devices such as the iPhone 5 and Garmin GPSMap 7215 can take advantage of other systems too.

It took more than 20 years before the current GPS system’s constellation of satellites and ground stations was completed, tested, and declared “fully operational.” A lot happened in those 20 years: 11 experimental Block 1 satellites were launched, served their purpose, and were replaced by larger, more powerful and sophisticated Block 2 satellites. Korean Airlines flight 007 strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down, prompting the Reagan Administration to make GPS available for civilian use. And (even before it had been declared fully operational) GPS was battle-tested in Operation Desert Storm.

It was an awesome system then, and still is. As old satellites have reached the end of their lives, they’ve been nudged out of their orbits and replaced. Block 2 satellites were superseded by Block 2A, then by Block 2R, 2RM, and 2F, with each generation representing a technological upgrade from the one before to make the entire thing more accurate, more reliable, and longer-lasting. On the ground, the old control system was replaced with state-of-the-art technology to match the latest satellites. The overall result is a system that is more accurate than ever: A $100 handheld civilian receiver now is more accurate than military receivers were when GPS was first declared operational.

And the next generation of satellites is already on order from Lockheed Martin. “The GPS III program will affordably replace aging GPS satellites, while improving capability to meet the evolving demands of military, commercial, and civilian users,” said company spokesperson Mike Friedman. “GPS III satellites will deliver better accuracy and improved anti-jamming power while enhancing the spacecraft’s design life and adding a new civil signal designed to be interoperable with international global navigation satellite systems.”

Later versions of GPS III will add a search-and-rescue function, relaying distress messages from EPIRBs and personal locator beacons (PLBs). 

But that’s a ways off. Right now, only ten of the 31 operational GPS satellites are still within their designed lifetimes. Nine of the others are the old Block 2As, launched in the 1990s. There are spare 2Fs waiting on the ground, and more on order, but with the end of the NASA space shuttle program, if several spacecraft were to fail in quick succession, it might not be possible to get replacements into space quickly enough to preserve the full constellation. And with defense spending figuring into government discussions of drastic budget cuts in 2013, plans for multiple launches have already been put on hold.

But GPS isn’t the only satellite navigation system. The Russians have one too, called GLONASS.

Soviet scientists began the project in 1972, but it was ten years before they launched their first satellite, and the Soviet Union was already heading toward its eventual breakdown. The early GLONASS satellites were so unreliable that they were failing almost as quickly as they could be launched: Out of 48 satellites launched, only 12 were operational when the Soviet Union collapsed.

When the Russian Federation took over, instead of allowing GLONASS to crumble away as a relic of the Cold War, it set about rebuilding the system. In a way, the short life expectancy of the early GLONASS satellites has been a blessing in disguise, because Russia now has 29 satellites in orbit, of which only one is past its use-by date. And in a major policy shift, the latest generation of GLONASS satellites have been designed to transmit signals that are much more like those used by GPS. 

And there’s a third system coming up fast on the outside: Europe’s Galileo has only been on the drawing board since 2000, so it’s more than a quarter of a century behind GLONASS and GPS. But the late start means it has been designed and built with 21st-century technology, so its first-generation satellites are at least on a par with, or even well ahead of, the latest generation GPS and GLONASS vehicles. 

Galileo being prepared for launch

As Galileo (above) and GLONASS satellites (below) are deployed, the satnav options for boaters grow.

GLONASS satellite being prepared for launch

For years, it has seemed that Galileo has been treading water: Most news of it has been about wrangling between the various European countries that are footing the bill, countered, not very effectively, by PR photographs of men in suits signing agreements. But all of a sudden, those contracts have turned into rockets blasting off, and hardware in orbit. In less than 12 months, the European Space Agency (ESA) has launched four satellites of a projected 30-satellite constellation. Another 22 satellites are being built, and launchers have been commissioned to put them in orbit. If all goes well, there should be a constellation of 18 Galileo satellites by the end of 2014 and 26 satellites by the end of 2015. 

Paul Flament, Galileo Program Manager at the European Commission, says he expects some of the Galileo services to be declared operational by October of 2014.

Even though you may not be taking your boat to Europe, there’s good news: All these systems are global. If these three different systems needed three different receivers, this might be a bit of a “so what” story: Just a bunch of global powers waving wads of money in each other’s faces in a conspicuous demonstration of reckless extravagance. But that’s not the case. There’s a good chance that you’ve already got a GLONASS receiver in your pocket, because many of the top-selling smartphones have GLONASS receivers built in, including the Apple iPhone 4S and 5, Samsung’s Galaxy S3, and LG’s hot-selling Nexus 4. And a “dual-fuel” GPS/GLONASS chip is at the heart of Garmin’s eTrex range of budget-priced handhelds, as well as its GPSMAP line going forward, and others.

According to spokesman Wes Owen, Garmin currently incorporates GLONASS, Galileo, and the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (a Japan-based navigation system) into its GPS 19x HVS position receiver/antenna. “Since more satellites are visible, the 10 Hz receiver can use them to update positioning up to 10 times per second,” Owen says.

Navico offers similar function in its Simrad, Lowrance, and B&G lines. “Our 10 Hertz GPS antennas offer fast updates, and feature a built-in compass as well as NMEA 2000 connectivity,” says Greg Konig, senior vice president of product management at Navico. “The antennas support GPS and GLONASS and are designed to support both Galileo and Beidou once fully active. No matter where our customers go, they have access to the best positioning data.” (See “Still Another System: China’s Beidou”.)

This kind of interoperability is not just a happy accident. Flament told Power & Motoryacht that he has been in discussions with his counterparts in the U.S. since 2004. “We signed an agreement with the U.S. in 2004 and since then the collaboration has been very positive,” he says. “We meet our American colleagues several times a year and we come up with solutions for the two systems which will be for the benefit of the end users. We made sure that the signals and the modulations of the signals are so similar between Galileo and GPS that it will cost very little for manufacturers to adapt their existing chipsets to cope with Galileo signals. The end user will very rarely see whether the position fix is coming from Galileo satellites or GPS satellites. It will be a mix.”

With three interoperable but independent systems working together, we may need to stop thinking of the box in our boat as a GPS but rather as a GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System). In a few years we could—without knowing it—be picking and choosing between the signals from 90 or more satellites. That’s a long way from the 16-satellite system available to U.S. forces during Desert Storm.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.