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The power of PNT: Protecting our sophisticated Positioning, Navigation, and Timing technology

Why securing our satellite navigation system is crucial to future safety.

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Andrey Armyagov

The U.S. Naval Observatory’s atomic clocks are an awe-inspiring example of the way technology intersects with the natural world. Their array of clocks are tuned to the frequency of atoms like cesium, hydrogen, and rubidium, and then synchronized to the rotation of the Earth and its place among specific pulsars in space that are known for having steady, consistent pulse rates. The team of engineers and scientists use these natural phenomena and produce highly accurate and stable time that the Department of Defense (DoD) uses to synchronize Positionining, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) information for mission-critical operations.

PNT is one of the most powerful modern technological advances, as it provides complex geospatial data that has multiple, wide-ranging applications and impacts. The technology plays a crucial role in 13 of the 16 US critical infrastructure sectors — meaning it enables the quality of telecommunications networks, the safety and precision of the air transportation system, the reliability of the power grid, and the delivery supply chain that ensures goods make it to stores.

Because PNT is so pervasive in every aspect of modern society and technology — and embedded in our everyday lives — protecting it from disruption is crucial. “PNT is in everything now,” says Kevin Coggins, Vice President and PNT Lead at Booz Allen Hamilton. “If it’s in everything, then everything’s dependent on it — and that means everything could be disrupted if something happens to it.”

GPS is versatile — but vulnerable

One of the most accurate, reliable, and powerful PNT technologies is the Global Positioning System, better known as GPS. The satellite-based system empowers everything from the smartphones in your pocket to global military operations.

Most people are probably familiar with GPS because it provides information used by map apps. If you’ve ever used one to find your way around unfamiliar places, or as a reassuring backup navigator so you don’t get lost, you’ve harnessed the power of GPS. However, GPS is also essential to the operation of nearly every industry. Farms that deploy precision agriculture leverage GPS to generate a detailed view of their land and its attributes. Cellular networks rely on precise synchronized times so that text messages and videos are sent successfully, while the financial industry uses GPS-derived data to help determine the best time to wheel and deal stocks.

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“GPS is perhaps the most innovative capability the world has ever seen,” Coggins says. “Farmers get centimeter-level precision. We can drop precision coordinates to military aircraft miles and miles away. We can take measurements as precise as hundreds of nanoseconds.”

As technology becomes more sophisticated, GPS is becoming vulnerable to attacks, specifically a growing array of jamming and spoofing techniques. An adversary could intercept and fake GPS data to hinder an enemy — since the latter would unwittingly be reacting to false information — or block GPS signals altogether, which is an even bigger issue.

The impact of these attacks could be far-reaching. Coggins says that 5G (and some 4G) cellular networks wouldn’t function without GPS, meaning necessary services such as Emergency 911 would be impacted, and points out that the power grid is also dependent on timing from GPS. The world’s trade is dependent on GPS, as it accurately tracks goods along the entire supply chain — from maritime ports through to delivery trucks and then on to their final destination.

GPS disruptions would also be an enormous financial blow. A 2019 NIST study estimated that losing GPS capabilities would cost the US economy $1 billion a day, meaning the worldwide impact of an outage veers toward the incalculable.

Protecting GPS is crucial for security and resiliency

GPS also provides many functions for the military including more precise weapons discharge, mission planning, or accurate communication. It follows that from a national security standpoint, keeping GPS functional is a priority.

Coggins points out that GPS outages could reduce the safety and efficacy of surveillance missions, for example. “Imagine if you’re flying an aircraft: If you can’t trust your instrument to tell you where you are, you might accidentally go across a border.” Cryptography is also “highly dependent on accurate time,” he adds. “If you can’t access accurate time, what’s that going to do to your ability to communicate?”

Milan Tomazin

Booz Allen Hamilton is taking multiple steps to ensure that GPS networks are protected from hostile outside interference. The company is working with its clients to boost cybersecurity capabilities on the operational and PNT side, with the goal of monitoring potential threats to GPS in quicker, more efficient ways. “We secure the often overlooked yet critical intersection of cyber and physical found in industrial control systems, critical infrastructure, satellites, and weapons systems,” Coggins says.

Booz Allen is also developing concrete prevention solutions, including GPS interference detection systems, smart and hybrid receivers, and digital twins. One Booz Allen Hamilton project in this realm, Sat-Sim, involves building digital twins of GPS satellites. By emulating how the system operates in the real world, Coggins says the two sides can then “explore vulnerabilities” that might crop up in the future in the non-virtual space — and work in advance to mitigate and solve any potential issues.

“It’s expensive to build an extra satellite to keep on the ground — and you can’t touch a satellite once it’s in operational use and so far away up in space,” he says. “We’re building these digital twins for our clients and then figuring out the best, most cost-effective long-term solutions for the capability they have in orbit.”

Perhaps most importantly, Booz Allen Hamilton is developing future PNT architectures based on open systems, which provide cost-effective, flexible solutions that lead to quicker innovation and better protection. In the case of PNT protection using an open-systems threat library, Coggins likens it to antivirus or antimalware software you might buy for a computer: Although the underlying software itself is static, the threat library the software accesses for protection is constantly updated as new viruses or threats arise.

“You have a GPS receiver and you’re monitoring the signal,” he explains. “You have this library that you’re looking at that has all these signatures of threats. Booz Allen architected a threat library model where it’s open. You can have a system that’s static — but is dynamic and upgrades over time, just by updating a threat library. It’s very cost-effective.”

What it boils down to is resilience: If GPS becomes jammed or unusable — whether due to technological malfunction or something more sinister — people and systems still need steady, constant access to PNT capabilities. Having the ability to adapt to obstacles and make intelligent changes at machine speed is the key to keeping everyone connected, and to keeping the critical PNT systems at the heart of global operations secure and resilient.

See how adaptable PNT ensures government and commercial users have available and accurate data.