Is GPS System Failure possible? What are the consequences?

Is GPS System Failure possible? What are the consequences? Can a GPS System ever fail or it is just a myth? In a word: Yes, GPS systems can fail. Potential customers may wonder whether buying a GPS device is still a good idea.

Any GPS outage is likely to develop over a period of years and the U.S Air Force, which manages the satellite navigation system, is under pressure to speed modernization efforts. Further, the cost of consumer GPS devices has dropped below $100 for units with turn-by-turn spoken navigation. At that price, the GPS unit can quickly pay for itself. Consumers also don’t require as precise a GPS fix as military users, who are more likely to notice GPS “brownouts.”

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has warned Congress that mismanagement of a $2 billion upgrade program threatens GPS service, which the government offers free to users. Older satellites start dying next year and replacements are being launched much more slowly than is necessary to maintain service, the report to Congress said.”Based on the most recent satellite reliability and launch schedule data approved in March 2009, the estimated long-term probability of maintaining a constellation of at least 24 operational satellites falls below 95% during fiscal year 2010 and remains below 95% until the end of fiscal year 2014, at times falling to about 80%,” the report stated.

Speeding the launch schedule is one solution to the problem, but the fact exists that GPS can operate with fewer than 24 satellites, though with potentially reduced precision. It could also take longer for GPS devices to compute a location “fix” if the number of operational satellites decreases.Fewer GPS satellites could also make it more difficult to receive a location fix in areas with a poor view of the sky, such as the downtown “canyons” of major cities. Coverage inside buildings could also suffer.

Nevertheless, two things are working in GPS’s favor: One is its popularity with consumers. Second is its role in national security, making it imperative that a solution be found and raising the political pressure for doing so. My guess is the government will find a way to fly GPS satellites more quickly and that enough will remain operational to make any degradation of service difficult for civilian users to detect.
If some banks are “too important” to fail, so are some government programs. GPS is one of those and, like the banks, it appears likely that large sums of money will be thrown at finding a solution. A

Any lack of confidence in the American GPS is a boon for supporters of the European Galileo satellite navigation system, which starts rolling out later this year. Over the long term, dual GPS/Galileo devices could improve both reliability and positional accuracy. The U.S. Department of Defense is likely to take swift action to step up the launch of new satellites to bolster the aging Global Positioning Satellite system. Otherwise, the system could begin failing in 2010, predicts a report from the GAO, and that would have monumental repercussions on national security and businesses worldwide.
However, businesses that depend on the service would be well-served by taking steps to prepare for an outage anyway. “I don’t think we’ll have a complete blackout. The implications of a failing GPS would be just tremendous,” he commented, “but there may be a couple of bumpy spots.”

The consequences of a GPS System failure can be anywhere ranging from annoying outages to a major breakdown. Some of them can be:

Diffuse Oversight causing Delays

The GAO reports in a May 7 study that the U.S. Air Force, which is responsible for acquiring and launching satellites for the system, may not be able to move quickly enough to replace satellites expected to begin failing after 2010. Technical problems and scattershot oversight have delayed the launch of the first next-generation GPS satellite by almost three years, the report notes. It is now scheduled for November.

Poor Accuracy

Fewer satellites would make it more difficult for GPS devices to obtain the signals they need to precisely measure their own location, especially in challenging terrain.”Such a gap in capability could have wide-ranging impacts on all GPS users, though there are measures the Air Force and others can take to plan for and minimize these impacts,” the report’s authors wrote. Industries worldwide depend on GPS systems. The global market for global positioning technologies is expected to reach US$48.8 billion in 2012, based on BCC Research’s forecast in a 2007 report. Truck fleets use GPS to route and manage vehicles; shipping companies track vessels worldwide; and commercial aviation pilots depend on the system to get airline passengers safely to their destinations. Hundreds of thousands of motorists also use GPS devices to find their way, as do emergency responders who rely on GPS-enabled 911 systems to precisely locate trouble calls.

Military Confusions

The GAO report also notes that even a partial GPS system failure could have important military ramifications. Precision-guided munitions could lose accuracy, resulting in failed missions or injury or death of innocent bystanders. The Air Force’s delay in implementing the new satellites could also prevent military crews from taking advantage of new capabilities, such as resistance to jamming.

Foreseeing problems

One way to forestall problems would be for device manufacturers to begin evaluating how to provide more precise signals with fewer satellites, suggested Gartner’s Koslowski. Businesses that depend on GPS may also want to consider alternative strategies, where possible, to minimize disruption, he added. The GAO recommends in its report that the Secretary of Defense appoint a single agency to oversee the full development, acquisition and implementation cycle for the GPS program to minimize potential disruptions; DoD concurred.

Should I buy a GPS?

If you are in the market to buy one, don’t hesitate. In the meantime, GPS users and those interested in buying GPS systems shouldn’t flinch, said Jessica Myers, a spokesperson for Garmin, which makes GPS units for the consumer market. India-based research firm RNCOS forecasts in an April report that shipments of GPS-enabled devices should surpass 700 million units by 2013, and Myers said there’s no reason that trend should not continue. “At this point in time, we’re confident that the system will continue to provide the signals that our customers and the nation need,” she said. “So much is now dependent on the GSP system. It’s amazing how much we are dependent on GPS systems today, isn’t it?


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