The GPS signal is massively disrupted with consequences for traffic and infrastructure

Satellite navigation in the Baltic Sea region is now frequently failing. Scientists are looking for the cause and finding massive sources of interference.

Heavy shipping traffic on the Baltic Sea. But it is precisely here that satellite navigation repeatedly fails. There are jamming transmitters.

Ships suddenly come ashore. Cars on the field. And airplanes have to use alternative systems to plan their landings. Satellite navigation is massively disrupted in the Baltic Sea region. On and off for a year and a half. But more so since September. And this interference affects both the American GPS and the European Galileo system. After all, both operate on the same frequencies. They complement each other, so to speak. But now both have a problem.

These failures are neither random observations, nor are they a technical failure, explains Florian David. He heads the Institute of Communications and Navigation at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). “It is not the satellite navigation that fails, but the reception of the satellite data that is disrupted.” And this is not just limited to the Baltic Sea region, but is currently being observed in many crisis regions around the world.

DLR flew over the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean with measuring aircraft. The facts are alarming. At times, no GPS signal was even available at Helsinki Airport. Florian David’s team also documented this with the measurement flights. However, the planes were still able to take off and land. There are alternative navigation techniques for aircraft with radar, sensors and ground-based guidance beams. However, if the navigation system in a car fails, this is not life-threatening. However, it does become a threat if ships can no longer communicate their exact position in busy waterways. In the Baltic Sea, for example, but also in the Suez Canal and around Syria, reports David.

The causes of these disturbances are not in space, but on Earth. The DLR’s measurement flights have shown that GPS signals are being deliberately overexposed there. “This seems to be happening quite deliberately in the crisis regions,” says Florian David. Scientists also know where this interference is coming from. “Yes, this can be localized.” However, there are political and military reasons for not naming the source of the interference.

Only this much: it’s not your own military. This was very different 10 or 20 years ago. Back then, the USA deliberately disarmed its systems in times of crisis. Only the American military then had the exact satellite data by means of decoding. However, this no longer makes sense, as there are other navigation systems. The civilian European Galileo, for example. And also the Russian Glonass. The DLR has no information on whether this is also subject to interference.

The GPS and Galileo satellites are located at an altitude of more than 20,000 kilometers. Their signals are extremely weak when they reach the navigation devices on earth. From the ground, it is therefore quite possible to outshine these signals. “This is possible with comparatively simple means.” Devices that work at short distances are available on the internet for just a few euros. “But what we’re dealing with here are very large systems with high power.” However, the jammers do not currently reach as far as Germany.

American measurement data also shows that false signals are also being sent. In other words, a satellite is faked from land that does not actually exist. As a result, the position jumps from one position to another. Ships then suddenly sail onto land, at least that’s what the navigation system shows. But ships, like airplanes, also have supplementary navigation systems. The only good news in all of this is: “Although these disruptions are unpleasant, they do not currently have any dramatic consequences.” But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

This critical infrastructure is at risk

These disruptions have so far been regionally limited. However, it is conceivable that the systems could be directly attacked and damaged, says Florian David. “I’m not aware of any such cases. That would be an act of war.” Satellite navigation is now part of the critical infrastructure. This involves far more than just aircraft and ships. Satellite data contains extremely precise time signals that come from atomic clocks. These time signals are now used by numerous industries. This development has been rapid, and faster than expected. “It’s hard to grasp how much depends on it,” says Florian David. Large servers, the internet, the synchronization of power grids, telecommunications and financial markets.

“A complete failure of this system would have very far-reaching consequences, so you have to look at how to harden these systems. How to protect them from attacks.” The DLR Institute of Communications and Navigation is also researching this. “New satellites need to be less vulnerable. That is one of the topics at our institute.”

When today’s systems were conceived and built, this was not yet an issue. This new technology had to be made to work in the first place. However, the speed and extent to which satellite navigation has established itself as indispensable in business and society is astounding, even for scientists. There is an urgent need for action. “There are already ideas for this, including from our company.”

Secure satellites planned

It is about the next generation of Galileo satellites, the first with a new security concept. The contract is expected to be awarded in 2026. Two or three years later, they will be in space. The other opportunity would be: “We are hardening the receivers so that they are impervious to such interference,” explains Florian David. These can then suppress both interference and deliberately false signals. “There are already solutions that are almost marketable and that we will turn into a product in the next few years.”

The Galileo control center is less than a five-minute walk from the DLR Institute. There are two of them. The other is located near Rome. Both control centers are constantly working in parallel at full capacity, but only one is currently controlling the satellites. This is called “hot redundancy”. And in the event of a failure, the handover would be possible without the slightest interruption. These control centers are also part of the critical infrastructure. They are well protected.


Article from: 22.01.2024
Source: Sächsische Zeitung
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