The Paradox Between GPS and Flight Safety

It’s a little surprising, but the more civil aviation becomes to GPS navigation, the more national security has to “degrade” GPS signals to prepare the military to meet new threats. The competing objectives of civil aviation and national security have, consequently, led to a decrease in flight safety.

GPS, or Global Positioning System, is a satellite-based radio navigation system that provides geolocation and time information to a receiver anywhere on where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. With the first satellite launched in 1974 by the US Department of Defense for military use, it was allowed for civilian use in the 1983. And ever since, it’s become an integral part of any navigational system. Which leads us the current problem— the military is increasingly performing intentional GPS interference exercises more often, for longer periods of time, and in more locations.

The US Department of Defense is conducting these exercises in order to counter emerging security risks posed by unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), otherwise known as drones. On the other hand, the US Department of Defense also uses drones, which rely on GPS navigation, for military and security operations.

GPS interference is a problem because it means that civil aviation, which is now almost exclusively dependent on GPS for navigation, is at risk. For example, a GPS degrading exercise done in the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center’s airspace led to more than 20 aircraft losing GPS navigation in only one hour. And, during such events, many aircraft have been document has going off course; with about 9,000 planes flying at any given time, this is incredibly unsafe.

The solution? Currently, the only solution is the wait for the FAA’s analysis of recommendations issued by a government-and-industry committee of RTCA (Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics). The FAA has to discuss with the Department of Defense how to move forward and ensure that future GPS interference exercises keep everyone safe.


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