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8 April 2011

World experts join forces to counter solar threats to satellite navigation

Global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) are now fully embedded in modern society, from in-car navigation to the timing of the world’s financial transactions. GNSS technology has taken the world by storm and we have come to rely on this multi-billion pound industry.

The sun

One of the major threats to our ever increasing dependence on GNSS comes from the sun. Solar related phenomena and their effect on the Earth’s ionosphere, such as ionospheric scintillation, can be very disruptive, with serious consequential effects. The concern is that GNSS has little or no protection from them.

As we approach the next solar maximum in 2013, when ionospheric effects will be at their greatest, a network of internationally renowned experts, led by the Institute of Engineering Surveying and Space Geodesy (IESSG) at The University of Nottingham, are joining forces to protect society from the effects of solar related phenomena on GNSS signals. These experts will be training a new generation of young researchers as well as developing new research programmes in the field of ionospheric perturbations and their mitigation.

At worst solar flares can black out satellite signals altogether. They can also create positioning errors and rapid signal fading. These intermittent problems are holding back the full development of a multi-billion pound industry in mission-critical and high precision applications for air, rail and marine transport, even autonomous machinery in areas such as agriculture.

TRANSMIT — Training Research and Applications Network to Support the Mitigation of Ionospheric Threats — is the first project of its kind in Europe. It is made up of a consortium of leading universities, research centres and industry across Europe and as far afield as Brazil and Canada.

TRANSMIT is IESSG’s latest and most prestigious project.  It will promote step-change research that will enable Europe to minimise disruption of GNSS and consequential societal costs associated with challenging effects arising from the influence of the sun on the ionosphere. IESSG, with the TRANSMIT project, was one of the few UK organisations selected in the 2009 call to lead one of these prestigious networks.

This €4m initiative is being funded by the European Commission through a Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN). ITNs are part of the FP7 People Programme and aim to improve the career perspectives of researchers who are in the first five years of their research career in both public and private sectors.

Marcio Aquino, Coordinator and senior researcher in IESSG, said: “Europe lacks robust counter-measures to deal with these ionospheric threats. TRANSMIT will succeed in its aims because of the strong expertise and resources from its exceptional set of partners, encompassing both academic excellence and top end users — including the aerospace and satellite communications sectors, GNSS system designers, service providers, major user operators and receiver manufacturers. The EC investment in projects like this confirms the importance Europe is giving to this new and exciting research area.”

The project will place Europe in a position to compete with state-of-the-art technology already being developed in North America.

GNSS, such as the American GPS (Global Positioning System) and the Russian GLONASS, support multi-billion Euro worldwide industries and related applications. Europe is currently developing its own GNSS system, Galileo, due to become operational over the coming decade. The European Community has predicted that the annual global market for GNSS will have reached €300bn by 2020.

Testimony to the damaging effects of ionospheric interference were the serious service interruption and degradation caused by the so-called ‘Halloween storm’ event that took place in October/November 2003, when one of the most intense solar flares ever was recorded: companies delayed high resolution land surveying, postponed airborne and marine surveys, cancelled drilling operations and resorted to backup systems and commercial aircraft were unable to use GNSS based systems for precision approaches.

Alan Dodson, Professor of Geodesy at the IESSG, said: “At the IESSG in Nottingham we have been studying effects of ionospheric scintillation on GNSS for over a decade now, having started during the last solar maximum. The IESSG is currently involved in several initiatives in this area through: a four year EPSRC funded coordinated research programme with the Universities of Bath and Leeds on ‘GNSS Scintillation: Detection, Forecasting and Mitigation’; the CIGALA (Concept for Ionospheric Scintillation Mitigation for Professional GNSS in Latin America) project, co-funded by the GNSS Supervisory Authority (GSA) through FP7; a two year Marie Curie Intra European Fellowship entitled ICARUS — Ionospheric threats and suitable Countermeasures Applicable to satellite Radio systems Under next Solar maximum; two Royal Society International Joint Projects for collaboration with Brazil and Italy respectively; and a Santander Universities Scheme grant for collaboration with Brazil.”

To understand TRANSMIT’s legacy to Europe it must be noted that navigation by artificial satellites, which led to what is today known as GNSS, has been historically dominated by the US.

The first ever satellite navigation system, the Transit system, was successfully launched by the US in the 1960’s. They introduced GPS in the 1970’s. Hence, not surprisingly, most related industry and research has been US led and dominated, historically narrowing the industrial and skill base in Europe. GPS signals have been mostly accessible by the civilian community and soon became the backbone of several applications of interest to the world‘s economy.

However, from its inception, GPS has been a military system, therefore carrying the stigma of an asset that cannot be fully relied upon. That led to the very concept of Galileo: to provide a civilian complement to GPS and create an impact on European industry in the area of GNSS, by incentivising the various segments and creating jobs. TRANSMIT will help the EU to fulfil its objectives associated with the Galileo programme by creating the high calibre critical mass necessary to support the programme by promoting the research and industrial cooperation urgently needed to neutralise one of Galileo’s (and other European systems’) main vulnerabilities, i.e. the threat posed by the perturbations of the Earth’s ionosphere.


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