White House Council Seeks Input on Plan to Invest in Alternatives to GPS


The request for information flows from an executive order on the responsible use of positioning, navigation and timing services.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy is asking for ideas on where it should put research and development dollars to avoid disruption to critical infrastructure due to interference—intentional and unintentional—with the open signals used in international satellite-based timing and navigation formations such as the Global Positioning System.

“OSTP requests input from all interested parties on the development of a National Research and Development Plan for Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Resilience,” reads a notice published in the Federal Register Monday. “The plan will focus on the research and development and pilot testing needed to develop additional PNT systems and services that are resilient to interference and manipulation and that are not dependent upon global navigation satellite systems (GNSS)."

U.S.-controlled GPS is the oldest and most widely used GNSS in the world. Other global positioning systems include Europe’s Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS, and China’s recently completed Beidou. 

These GNSS rely on satellite constellations transmitting signals to receiving devices. Those signals from the various satellites are measured against each other to provide precise location and timing. But as experts in a briefing by the National Institute of Standards and Technologies explained, vulnerabilities in the receivers are well documented and the signals can be intercepted or supplanted. In one historic example of deliberate interference, Iranians were able to capture a U.S. drone, which followed imposter signals into the wrong territory.

The stakes will steadily increase with the emergence of fifth generation networking and the growing internet of things. “5G’s increased capacity, higher speeds, and lower latency will support billions of devices that will need to know where they are and what time it is,” the wireless industry association CTIA wrote in comments to NIST

The OSTP RFI flows from a Feb. 12 executive order that calls for the Commerce Department (through NIST) to develop profiles that will inform federal agencies’ procurement of positioning, navigation and timing services. In addition to trying to increase the adoption of ways to make GNSS-based PNT services more resilient to interference, the order also calls for OSTP to look into ways the U.S. might eliminate reliance on GNSS altogether. 

In the search for alternative PNT services, agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Homeland Security have had a head start. 

But budding alternatives to GNSS-based PNT services could also hold dangers, MITRE’s Arthur Scholz noted during the NIST webinar.

“Alternative and complementary PNT systems are in development,” he said. “While we understand the vulnerabilities in GNSS, we don’t understand the vulnerabilities in these newer systems. So it’s important that as those new systems are adopted, we continue to take an informed, risk-based approach in doing so.”