Experts warn of catastrophe risks of GPS system

March 3, 2012 by
Filed under: Exclusive 

Safety critical experts are calling for an alternative network for timing alongside the GPS satellite network to avoid catastrophic system failures.

“Many organisations declare they have no dependence on GPS and hence no need for backup. They are wrong,” said Prof Martyn Thomas, visiting professor at Bristol University and one of the founders of consultancy Praxis, now Altran Praxis, in Bath, speaking to the industry at the Safety Critical Systems Club symposium in Bristol. “Ideally we need a global, diverse source of timing,” he said. “The safety community needs to watch out for accidental systems and I believe they are more common than we currently realise.”

GPS is used as a timing system for lots of systems, and if it were to fail, be jammed or hacked would have catastrophic consequences for transport and mobile networks. These would range from errors in navigation to complete system failure (see links below)  and could be triggered by a huge solar flare called a Carrington event which is increasingly probable. “We have never really had a massive coronal event in the era of satellites so we just don’t know what the effect would be,” he said. The risk of such a storm in the next decade is over 12% (see more links below).

One possible solution would be eLoran, a land-based, low frequency, high power alternative wireless timing signal that would be difficult to jam and cheap to run, he said. “It would cost just £1m to £2m a year to maintain the system across Europe, it’s a no-brainer but the question is who would pay for it,” he said.

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