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Without GPS, modern civilization would perish

GPS provides location data to aircraft, cars, trucks, trains, and ships, while GPS timing signals support financial activities and cellular communications. According to a 2019 report supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the loss of GPS would cost the US economy $1 billion per day, or $1.5 billion if it failed during the April-May planting season. With the rapid development in consumer services and location-based transportation and delivery services, the expenses could be considerably higher two years from now.

By email, Alan O’Connor, director of innovation economics and senior economist at RTI International, which is a non-profit research institute that produced the 2019 report, said: “Positioning, navigation, and timing signals are essential to so several partners and for so many diverse applications which an interruption in these signals will indeed likely be more financially significant today.”

GPS and its GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) competitors — Europe’s Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS, and China’s Beidou — are critical components in a wide range of economic operations. In their respective regions, India’s NavIC and Japan’s QZSS are equally essential.

The oldest and most extensively used PNT system is GPS. Many legacy infrastructure networks still use GPS-only receivers. To ensure GNSS continuity and accuracy, multi-constellation receivers have become the norm. These receivers should potentially ensure service consistency in the case of GPS failure because they pick up signals from every accessible GNSS satellite, regardless of the constellation. However, since they rely on GPS so heavily, it’s unclear how they would react if GPS were lost for several hours.

“GPS is quite vital in our daily life. I am confident lives would be lost if it went gone for an extended period,” Dana Goward, head of the charity Resilient Navigation & Timing Foundation, stated via email. GNSS disruptions have only lasted a few hours so far, but a prolonged outage is possible. Galileo experienced a six-hour system outage on December 14, 2020, and a week-long disruption in July 2019. In 2014, GLONASS failed when its satellites broadcast erroneous data for 11 hours.

Individual GNSS satellite outages are common, and the systems are frequently targeted for jamming and spoofing. After an earlier satellite was deactivated in 2016, GPS-based timing devices began to indicate errors. The 13-microsecond difference disrupted police and emergency communication devices across North America for hours, causing power grid outages.

The timing aspect is one of the reasons GNSS failures are so widespread. GNSS satellites employ atomic clocks for signal synchronization, allowing users to estimate the time with nanosecond accuracy. Consequently, banks depend on GPS to report precise transaction timing, and mobile towers utilize it to sync network nodes.

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