Where am I …. ?

2 May 2024

Where am I …. ?

By Paul Branch

We’ve all had the jocular holiday pilot experience: “Fasten your seatbelts folks … we’ll be landing in ten minutes at Geneva airport”.   Startled looks from the back of the plane, worried whispering, buttons being pressed to summon a steward.  And then:  “Apologies folks, my little mistake …. maybe too much to drink before we took off.  Of course we’ll be landing at Genova airport.  Have a good holiday, and thank you for choosing {Ryanair/easyJet/TUI/whatever}”.  Sighs of relief all round, nervous giggling at the pilot’s amusing little joke, all forgotten as we head off into the Italian sunshine.  Maybe a passing thought that it would have been easy to punch in “Geneva” instead of “Genova” on the aircraft’s navigation system, but of course thanks to modern technology and rigorous operational procedures such things don’t happen.

Flying these days however is perhaps not quite the safe pastime it was once assumed to be.  Bits falling off Boeing airplanes is not something you really want to hear about.  But a new neighbour assures me Boeing’s current woes are nothing new.  In his pre-retirement days as a long distance commercial pilot he was well used to landing without all the kit he took off with – wobbly bolts, losing a chunk of fuselage, the odd safety hatch getting detached were all part of the flying experience.   And there’s a fair bit of truth to the old tale of the transatlantic 747 losing one, two and then a third engine, each loss being followed by the apologetic pilot announcing that their arrival time was becoming increasingly delayed, but of course the aircraft was designed to cope with such incidents, albeit with steadily reducing airspeed.  After the announcement of the third engine failure an exasperated passenger cannot contain himself: “One more and we’ll be up here all night!”

Losing one’s way is also not a serious concern when for many years now we have relied on the wonders of satellite navigation to guide us safely and accurately, wherever we happen to be travelling, by air, by sea, in the car or on foot.  Sextants and the like are a thing of the dim and distant past.  No one still relies on an atlas to navigate through congested cities when the humble smartphone can do that for you effortlessly, at the click of an app.  Google maps or similar are at your fingertips, connected directly to navigation satellite constellations orbiting silently and efficiently overhead.

Alas in some parts of the world dark forces are at work, taking advantage of our increasing dependency on technology, and using or obstructing that technology for their own nefarious political or piratical purposes.   Spoofing and jamming are becoming more prevalent, and it’s not looking good.  But first, a resume of the sat-nav concept for those a little rusty on GPS, Glonass, BeiDou and Galileo, the mainstay applications of the art of answering the vital question “Where am I?” with impressive accuracy.   Satellite navigation is based on a fleet of spacecraft in a 20,000 km medium earth orbit, somewhere between the higher, more traditional geostationary orbit above the equator and the newer Elon Musk low earth orbiting satellites buzzing around in their hundreds.   The first dedicated sat-nav was the US Global Positioning System (GPS), now, with 24 spacecraft plus a few spares, giving complete overlapping earth coverage and transmitting time/date stamped signals in the relatively low L-band frequency spectrum (around 1500 MHz).   A GPS receiver on the ground can collect these signals from multiple satellites, process them almost instantaneously, and determine its own position down to an accuracy of a few metres or so.  Not to be outdone, Russia now has its own Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass) which works in a very similar manner to GPS.  Likewise the Chinese BeiDou system (or “Northern Dipper”, named after the seven brightest stars of the Ursa Major constellation), and the European Space Agency’s Galileo system funded by the EU.   Other navigation systems for regional use are either in service or planned, such as in India, as everyone wants their own independent location capability covering their sovereign territory.   Where, you might ask, is the UK’s own sovereign satellite navigation system?   And answer sadly came there none.

All these systems rely on very weak signals transmitted by the satellites over very long distances to small mobile receivers on earth (your smartphone probably has an embedded GPS chip, maybe supporting other sat-nav systems as well).  This weakness enables malicious interference by much stronger signals transmitted on the ground and aimed directly at the smaller mobile receiver to cause havoc.  They can simply jam the wanted sat-nav signal such that, for example, an aircraft flying overhead or a ship sailing nearby have no idea where they are, and need to resort quickly to other navigation devices on board.   Or the malicious transmitter can spoof a sat-nav signal to make the receiver think it’s in another location completely.

Sat-nav jamming recently caused Defence Secretary Grant Shapps to turn back mid-flight on his way to Warsaw after his RAF aircraft suddenly lost its sat-nav capability over Poland.   Last week two Finnair passenger flights from Helsinki suffered a similar fate when trying to reach Estonia, and had to abandon the trip due to unsafe navigation equipment.   Since August of last year more than 45,000 flights over the Baltic have reported navigation issues, with a further 4000 flights affected elsewhere.   Western sources obviously lay the blame on Russia which has seven “Topol” jamming complexes protecting key military sites across the country but which are also capable of offensive actions rather than just defensive.  But maybe they were just testing their own kit ….

Over the past couple of months the interference problem has spread to the high seas, but not so much from jamming sat-nav receivers as spoofing ships’ locations.     Merchant vessels in the Persian Gulf for example have had their communications equipment suddenly go off-line when they think they have jumped to Tehran or an Iranian coastal town.   This not only impacts their basic navigation equipment but also the regular position-reporting process used by most trading ships in international waters, and their anti-piracy devices.   Western sources obviously lay the blame on the Iranian military agency …. but in this case there seems to be no reason other than dangerous mischief-making.

There is additionally the phenomenon of voluntary spoofing, whereby the user’s location can be changed to give a deliberately false location.   For your smartphone there are apps which will do this for you effortlessly – useful when you want to be seen to be somewhere else for whatever innocent or clandestine reason.  Self-spoofing is also being used by Russian trading vessels to evade sanctions by reporting their location far distant from where they’re not supposed to be.  

Effective solutions to jamming and spoofing are proving to be difficult to identify, apart from returning to more traditional navigation methods like using land-based navigational aids or dead reckoning.  Given that the sources of sat-nav interference appear to be two of the world’s most belligerent governments operating in and around their own territories, we in the UK are probably shielded from possible attack in our cars and out walking by our sheer distance from the malicious transmissions.   So no need just yet to dig out old route maps and inner city guides.   But if you’re flying abroad, maybe pay just a little bit more attention to where you may, or may not, have landed.   

In memoriam Don Urquhart:  a sad farewell to Don from his old school mates who read his Shaw Sheet Corbynista columns regularly and avidly, and who enjoyed the lunches Don arranged.  Not everyone agreed with everything he wrote and said, but no one argued with his passionate belief in social justice and equality, or doubted his sincerity.  Don’s love of football, especially his adored Arsenal, and his sense of humour were evident to the end.  It was a great pleasure and privilege to have known him.

tile photo: Lamna The Shark on Unsplash

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