Mobile Tech

GAO-Predicted GPS Failure Could Have Drastic Consequences

The business and national security implications of a Global Positioning Satellite system failure would be too enormous to bear, and as a result, the prediction made in a recent U.S.Government Accountability Office report is unlikely to come to pass, a Gartner research analyst who follows the industry told TechNewsWorld on Wednesday.

However, businesses that depend on the service would be well-served by taking steps to prepare for an outage anyway, Thilo Koslowski said.

“I don’t think we’ll have a complete blackout. The implications of a failing GPS would be just tremendous,” he commented, “but there may be a couple of bumpy spots.”

Diffuse Oversight Led to Delays

The GAO reports in a May 7 study that the U.S. Air Force, which is responsible for acquiring and launching satellites for the system, may not be able to move quickly enough to replace satellites expected to begin failing after 2010.

Technical problems and scattershot oversight have delayed the launch of the first next-generation GPS satellite by almost three years, the report notes. It is now scheduled for November.

Fewer Satellites, Poor Accuracy

Fewer satellites would make it more difficult for GPS devices to obtain the signals they need to precisely measure their own location, especially in challenging terrain.

“Such a gap in capability could have wide-ranging impacts on all GPS users, though there are measures the Air Force and others can take to plan for and minimize these impacts,” the report’s authors wrote.

Industry Growing Quickly

Industries worldwide depend on GPS systems. The global market for global positioning technologies is expected to reach US$48.8 billion in 2012, based onBCC Research’s forecast in a 2007 report.

Truck fleets use GPS to route and manage vehicles; shipping companies track vessels worldwide; and commercial aviation pilots depend on the system to get airline passengers safely to their destinations.

Hundreds of thousands of motorists also use GPS devices to find their way, as do emergency responders who rely on GPS-enabled 911 systems to precisely locate trouble calls.

Military Ramifications

The GAO report also notes that even a partial GPS system failure could have important military ramifications. Precision-guided munitions could lose accuracy, resulting in failed missions or injury or death of innocent bystanders.

The Air Force’s delay in implementing the new satellites could also prevent military crews from taking advantage of new capabilities, such as resistance to jamming.

Steps to Take

One way to forestall problems would be for device manufacturers to begin evaluating how to provide more precise signals with fewer satellites, suggested Gartner’s Koslowski.

Businesses that depend on GPS may also want to consider alternative strategies, where possible, to minimize disruption, he added.

The GAO recommends in its report that the Secretary of Defense appoint a single agency to oversee the full development, acquisition and implementation cycle for the GPS program to minimize potential disruptions; DoD concurred.

In the Market? Don’t Hestitate, Maker Says

In the meantime, GPS users and those interested in buying GPS systems shouldn’t flinch, said Jessica Myers, a spokesperson for Garmin, which makes GPS units for the consumer market.

India-based research firm RNCOS forecasts in an April report that shipments of GPS-enabled devices should surpass 700 million units by 2013, and Myers said there’s no reason that trend should not continue.

“At this point in time, we’re confident that the system will continue to provide the signals that our customers and the nation need,” she said. “So much is now dependent on the GSP system. It’s amazing how much is woven into it.”

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