A satellite navigation system outage would seriously hamper the emergency services, public transport and financial systems.
That is according to the Royal Academy of Engineering, which warned that the country’s high dependence on GPS devices was misguided given the ease with which the signals can be disabled.
A solar storm could easily floor all global satellite navigation systems – including the US military’s GNSS system, Europe’s Galileo and Russia’s Glonass – the RAoE said in its ‘Global Navigation Space Systems’ report. Additionally, simple and cheap jamming devices can cause local havoc by disabling signals.
The impact on the ground would be widespread. Emergency services would be disrupted by a severe effect on route guidance, fleet management and vehicle priority, the report said.
Road, rail, air and sea navigation devices would be disrupted, with potentially dangerous consequences, the report warned. Risks affected coastal navigation for ships, and runway approach systems for aircraft.
The oil and gas industries were also at risk, with precision drilling in serious danger of error, the RAoE noted. Precision agriculture and environmental monitoring applications face similar concerns.
Share trading, which relies on precision timing, was also at risk. Many of the highly accurate time systems pull on GPS data.
Given the widespread dangers of an outage, the Royal Academy called for the government to take a number of important steps. These include giving a greater budget to radio systems on the ground, in order to provide better back-up, as well as banning the import of jamming systems of which types often sell for as little as £20.
“GPS and other GNSS [systems] are so useful and so cheap to build into equipment that we have become almost blindly reliant on the data they give us,” warned Dr Martyn Thomas, chair of the RAoE’s working group on GPS technology. “A significant failure of GPS could cause lots of services to fail at the same time, including many that are thought to be completely independent of each other.”