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GPS Accuracy Could Start Dropping In 2010 210

Posted by timothy
from the how-to-blackmail-for-tax-dollars dept.
adamengst writes "A US Government Accountability Office report raises concerns about the Air Force's ability to modernize and maintain the constellation of satellites necessary to provide GPS services to military and civilian users. TidBITS looks at the situation and possible solutions."
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GPS Accuracy Could Start Dropping In 2010

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 14, 2009 @06:53PM (#27958839)

    There he is! No, wait...

  • by mr_stinky_britches (926212) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @06:54PM (#27958851) Homepage Journal
    From TFA:

    The GAO's report draws attention to problems that the Air Force has had in working with contractors to build and launch GPS satellites within cost and schedule goals. Some of the problems stem from government acquisition methods that didn't provide for enough oversight, and added requirements that resulted in cost and schedule overruns.

    Sounds like a software/project management issue to me. I didn't finish reading the article, but I hope one of their proposed solutions was to fire the incompetent people who can't deliver on-time or within budget.

    just my .02c

    • by FireFlie (850716) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:25PM (#27959205)
      Just your 1/50th of a cent?
    • by copponex (13876) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:54PM (#27959499) Homepage

      They defend "freedom."

      I'm all for opening up completely the books of any government subcontractor. If you don't like transparency, then don't take government contracts. It may be tough to police, with companies trying to cheat with subsidiaries, but I think the payoff would be enormous.

      On 9/10/2001, Rumsfeld gave a speech about wasteful military spending. Check it out in print [defenselink.mil], or a small piece on CBS [youtube.com]. There was a link to his whole speech years ago - I don't know where that went. In it he states that up to 2.3 trillion dollars is "unaccounted" for, whatever that means. If you read between the lines, he is pushing for privatization of the military. We all know how well that worked out.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ktappe (747125)

        On 9/10/2001, Rumsfeld gave a speech about wasteful military spending

        Given his position as Secretary of Defense, he was in the best possible position to fix the woes he spoke of. How'd that work out? It's funny how you fail to fix problems when you have a financial interest in not seeing them fixed. Sure would be interesting to see a full accounting of Rumsfeld's and Cheney's accounts these days, and just how much Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Halliburton all enhanced their retirements.....

        • by Martin Blank (154261) on Friday May 15, 2009 @01:38AM (#27962131) Journal

          Rumsfeld did have ideas which would have lowered overall spending had they succeeded. However, they flew in the face of thousands of years of military history, and are seen as having been instrumental in what was eventually a rather unceremonious exit. He essentially wanted to go to an all-Special Forces military, with only a few legacy systems for those cases when a couple of massive non-nuclear punches were required. I don't know if he watched Navy Seals one too many times, but nothing replaces boots on the ground when you want to hold ground -- something that Special Forces are not intended to do.

      • I'd rather spend the money.

        If nothing else the spending provides a market for engineering new, more efficient uses of current technology, and it employs the brighter minds in work that can be immediately rewarding (for example defense contractors involved in rapid prototyping-- design, build, and test in about 6 months, work the kinks out, and mass produce 3 months later. These contractors have had a very real impact on the lives of soldiers in Iraq-- they can report and say "hey if we had something that co

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by shipofgold (911683)
      This is a mergers and acquisitions problem. Having worked for a large company and gone through more than one merger/divestiture/early retirement buyout/staff cutting/staff building/etc. I have seen a lot of history and knowledge walk out the door. When projects get shuffled around and re-organized it is inevitable you end up with people who are out of their depth trying to make sense of the previous work and in many cases just redoing it because they don't understand it. Not a case of incompetance on the
    • by scdeimos (632778)

      I didn't finish reading the article, but I hope one of their proposed solutions was to fire the incompetent people who can't deliver on-time or within budget.

      You probably should have finished reading the article. How I read it was that the contractors responsible for building the new (and SiRF-III upgraded) satellites (ie: Boeing) have been letting go of the people with the necessary knowledge to stay on-schedule with their commitments because they've too busy buying and merging with other companies instead.

  • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:00PM (#27958907) Homepage Journal
    Best not to rely entirely on one system anyway.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:27PM (#27959231)

      I'm Catholic you insensitive clod! I can't use it!

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Scrameustache (459504)

        I'm Catholic you insensitive clod! I can't use it!

        Get with the times, you anachronistic clod!

        Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, impose

      • by Repton (60818) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @09:47PM (#27960557) Homepage

        Heh. Naming a bunch of things that orbit the earth after Galileo. Irony :-)

    • by j-stroy (640921) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @08:38PM (#27959913)
      A friends mom escaped the wreck of a 90ft Fish Packer as it hit the rocks at night in a passage with strong currents due to a problem caused by relying on GPS. It was due to something like how it derived the heading vs the direction of travel or some-such.

      Moral of the story was that using static ground stations like LORAN, this would not have occurred. Anyhow, now ground stations have been dismantled and vessel's receivers scrapped and there is nothing groundbased to replace GPS with should GPS fail. High altitude communications aircraft seem viable; however, there again is a reliance on something that is not physically bolted down and easily fixable.

      An interesting footnote is mentioned by Buckminster Fuller [bfi.org] in his 50 year summation masterwork "Critical Path": [easystorecreator.com] on pages 186-7. [amazon.ca] The Americans started their radio-accurate mapping from Compass Island in Penobscot Bay in Maine, and proceeded by radio triangulation to work their way down to South America, across the Atlantic and up Africa to Europe. This was needed for accurately guiding bombers above the clouds, as the ground survey maps were often 10's of miles incorrect.

      The Germans had done this as well for Europe and perhaps Russia, so when Berlin fell, the Russians went in early and took the German mapping data. Russia had radio-accurate maps of all of Europe and published data from the US, while the US did not have maps of Russia. This lead to the importance in the cold war of US spy planes and satellites for basic mapping for targeting ICBM's, including as suggested by Fuller a US presence in Iran and Afghanistan as radio triangulation bases. Russia performed massive deceptions of fake cities and so on to perpetuate this information gradient.
      • Some people in aviation are using a combination of the two. They locally transmit an offset to GPS, based on the known position of a fixed GPS reciever.
      • by digitig (1056110) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @09:21PM (#27960307)

        A friends mom escaped the wreck of a 90ft Fish Packer as it hit the rocks at night in a passage with strong currents due to a problem caused by relying on GPS. It was due to something like how it derived the heading vs the direction of travel or some-such.

        Something wrong there. Both LORAN and GPS only give position (GPS gives time too, but that doesn't help here). Direction of travel is determined in both systems by taking the difference in position over a known time interval. GPS can give heading by using the phase difference between receivers on different parts of the vessel, whereas the wavelength of LORAN was probably too long for that to work. Upshot is, a problem involving headings and direction of travel isn't the fault of GPS, and using LORAN would have been no defence. It may have been a problem with the GPS receiver software, but LORAN calculations could go wrong too. Most likely it was a navigator not understanding the systems they had.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by digitig (1056110)

          Direction of travel is determined in both systems by taking the difference in position over a known time interval.

          Sorry, I should have said velocity is determined in both systems by taking the difference in position over a known time interval. For direction of travel the time interval doesn't matter of course.

          • by j-stroy (640921)
            Direction of travel is not the same as Heading. Heading (the direction the vessel is pointed) can be different than direction of travel at sea, or in the air due to movement of the water/air itself.
          • by alannon (54117)

            Direction of travel is called Bearing. A plain GPS device can give you bearing, but not heading. Many handheld GPS devices include a solid-state magnetic compass, though.

      • by timeOday (582209)

        It was due to something like how it derived the heading vs the direction of travel or some-such. Moral of the story was that using static ground stations like LORAN, this would not have occurred.

        You can't draw that conclusion until you know what went wrong with the gps-based system, and what goes wrong with ground-based system. It's not as if the obvious alternative to a flawed system is using a perfect system instead, or even a (more complex) combination of systems.

        • by j-stroy (640921)
          I don't remember the detail of the story; However, the point of it being a failure due to GPS issue was relayed by my friend (the daughter). The vessel was a packer named "The Salty Isle" and is known by some in the BC area. The seafood-diver fleet was in the area and made a midnight storm rescue of all hands from a nasty rock.

          I seem to recall that the amount of current in the passage (at night) was the problem, and that the drift was not noted by the Skipper with the GPS instrument because of a consta
  • by Chmcginn (201645) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:00PM (#27958911) Journal
    With one or two satellites below the 24 constellation, the accuracy isn't going to be impeded any noticeable amount. Any GPS reciever that can take DGPS signals might well not even notice.

    The real concern is a major solar event - if they're having a big issue replacing one every other year, imagine if a major solar storm took out a dozen at once.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:00PM (#27958915)
    Ah, and you all laughed when Europe started to launch Galileo sats. Haha!
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      We did? Funny, I thought that most of the replies on /. might have questioned it but eventually agreed that it's not a bad idea to have a redundant array of satellites out there.
    • by saiha (665337)
      If anything I would have expected "its about time" posts, seeing as Europe has been using the US stuff for free.
    • by ktappe (747125)

      Ah, and you all laughed when Europe started to launch Galileo sats. Haha!

      Side question: Would it be possible to design a GPS receiver that made use of both the US and Euro birds? Could the two systems be used as each others' backup?

      • From what I've read, Galileo receivers will be able to receive GPS signals, increasing the number of satellites available to triangulate your position and thereby increasing accuracy.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by digitig (1056110)
        Yes. There have already been dual GPS/GLONASS systems for many years, so a triple GPS/GLONAS/Galileo system should be no problem. You could even throw EGNOS in. Of course, it will cost more, which is why few people have bothered with the dual GPS/GLONASS kit since GPS is good enough for most purposes.
    • Ah, and you all laughed when Europe started to launch Galileo sats. Haha!

      Yes, because we broke out the Queen. Magnifico.

    • No (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Friday May 15, 2009 @04:29AM (#27963085)

      We laughed at the fact that Europe has NOT stated to launch Galileo sats. As of yet, the system is still operational and I can't find any data saying they've even launched a single sat. Last I can see they were supposed to in 2H 2008, but I can't find anything saying they did.

      The funny things about Galileo isn't that they are working on their own system. Makes good sense, especially since the US and EU apparently worked out their differences with it and the two systems will work together to give even better results. The funny thing is all the politicing and such going on that is keeping the project in vaporware status for a long time. By the original timeline, the system ought to be up now, and instead it isn't even starting.

  • by yourassOA (1546173) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:04PM (#27958955)
    with land disputes. "Your fence is on my property" etc. We have had problems as it is with surveys in the last couple of years. It was blamed on poorly trained surveyors and some instances issues were settled in court particularly over contradicting reports and who pays for the cost of the surveys. In one instance 1/4 mile of new fence had to be moved at a cost of $10,000 and lawyer/surveyor fees of $25,000 over the fence been 5 feet out. The land in question later was sold for $60,000. What a waste of money over a silly pissing contest.
  • by melted (227442) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:16PM (#27959075) Homepage

    That's OK. By then Russian GLONASS will be fully operational and both the Europeans and the Chinese are thinking of launching their own satellite navigation systems. Out of these three, chances are at least one will be available for the US to use in case of a global conflict.

  • by macraig (621737) <(mark.a.craig) (at) (gmail.com)> on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:17PM (#27959091)

    Plenty of people anticipated this, but nobody has given a shit enough about it to do anything substantial. I was first hearing warnings about this years ago. As a programmer, I anticipated the Millenium Bug almost 20 years beforehand, and refused to take those shortcuts that everyone else thought were wise. Back on the GPS Ranch, meanwhile, the EU is busy putting its own superior system in place, in part because they don't want to be dependent upon our system, esp. if and when we fuck up and fail to keep it operational.

    Just one more reason to move to Europe.

    • by quanticle (843097) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:22PM (#27959155) Homepage

      Why move to Europe? I mean, its not like they'll not be restricting the system so that it only works over Europe. Why not just buy a Galileo receiver (when they become available)?

      Also, isn't Galileo supposed to be backwards compatible with GPS?

      • by saiha (665337)
        Its been a long time since I've looked into Galileo but I would have to say that the positioning is done virtually the same as GPS. Though I think galileo probably has more orders of ephemeris data. The basics are the satellite gives you enough info for you to figure out where it is, then you find the distance from you to the satellite and triangulate your position.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I was first hearing warnings about this years ago.

      Hmm... years ago, Boeing wasn't 3 years behind on launch schedule, and we wouldn't have this issue. If the AirForce had known 3 years ago, they would've exercised some option to build more IIMR builds. Boeing kept on pushing the launch date back, 3 months at a time, and here we are.

      • by macraig (621737)

        I know I heard of it before I moved where I live now, and that would place it more than three years ago. I don't think I heard it from Slashdot the first time around. The source might have been my uncle (well-connected aerospace engineer, worked @ China Lake, Lockheed, JPL).

      • by radtea (464814)

        If the AirForce had known 3 years ago, they would've exercised some option to build more IIMR builds.

        Or not. It should be of real concern to Americans that you are no longer able to credibly execute long-term plans at the government level. This is a bi-partisan issue.

        The recent closing of Yucca Mountain is an unfortunate example of this. It should never have been the selected site due to geotechnical issues, and it should not have been allowed to dominate the waste disposal landscape for so many years an

    • by argStyopa (232550)

      I'm sure everyoone's delighted to hear how much more intelligent you are than everyone else! Congratulations, I'm sure your mom is proud.

      "EU is busy putting its own superior system in place"
      Really? How many satellites (of 30) have they lofted again?

      It looks more to me like the EU is pissing and moaning and backstabbing each other to leave Galileo a boondoggle that will only allegedly fly by 2013. One might argue that the US system, being actually operational, is far more likely to be upgraded on-time tha

    • I'm like you, dude! Incredible foresight!

      I submitted a bug to Macromedia back when Flash 5 had just came around. I told them the version checking code fragment listed on their site wouldn't work once they hit Flash 10, and submitted code that looked for a space or a digit after the first number.

      They never did update it. Years later, when Flash 10 was finally released, any .swf files using the old actionscript broke, reporting you have to upgrade your flash player despite having the newest one. :P

      Some develo

  • Hardware can fail? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Bellegante (1519683) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @07:21PM (#27959133)
    This isn't news. The article simply says that there have been problems getting new satellites in orbit; but the ones that are there are functioning fine. Yes, they COULD fail, but they haven't done so yet, and there isn't yet any indication that they will.

    Move along, move along.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Actually the GPS satellites aren't failing fast enough. It's my understanding that the Air Force has multiple satellite sitting on the ground waiting to launch but the ones on orbit aren't dying fast enough (some of them are already at twice their design life and still going strong)

      I was also under the impression that there are currently 29 satellites in orbit, which means that 5 would have to fail before we even get down to a constellation of 24, and they can launch spares before that happens!

  • We should be fine as long as we dont let Daniel Jackson Get ahold of them [jackfic.net]
    • by JoshuaZ (1134087)
      The link is not working. I presume it is however a reference to the Stargate SG-1 episode where Daniel Jackson is given all the technological knowledge of the Gouald (the primary alien menace for most of the series) and he is then corrupted into building a massive set of death ray satellites above Earth which he uses to unite Earth more or less under his control (after frying Moscow among other activities). At the end of the episode we find out that it was all in his mind and was a lesson from a boddhisatva
  • by ShooterNeo (555040) on Thursday May 14, 2009 @08:43PM (#27959953)

    Are the 3 different GPS systems being proposed (U.S., Galileo, a possibly Russian system) be broadcasting on frequencies close enough to each other that receivers that use all 3 systems will be common and fit into cell phones?

    That would be the best outcome : software defined receivers that can pick up a signal from any satellite positioning signal in the sky : GPS, wide area differential GPS, Galileo, everything. Massive redundancy would mean that if you were to go between buildings or even inside buildings, there would be a greater chance that at least some of the satellites were still visible.

    Everything that depends on global positioning would work better : from airline navigation systems to X prize landers.

  • WAAS is the limiting factor in most units and most cases (near urban areas) so this is a non-story. Besides, the people going for those kind of caches are experienced at reading environmental clues anyways, so not much effect there either.

  • It sounds to me like a cry for help directed to the public sector, from the US Government.

    Imagine a subscription/license service for a geo-location broadcast platform from space that is unrestricted to users and as accurate as science knows how to make such things "accurate." How much do you think that license would be worth?

    Scary? Absolutely.

    Possible? More Absolutely!

    There is serious money in geo-location today. Not just to target nuclear warhead.. if you call that a business.

  • More than GPS (Score:5, Informative)

    by proudfoot (1096177) on Friday May 15, 2009 @12:45AM (#27961775)
    There's more than just GPS.

    Here's a listing of all current/proposed global systems. Regional only systems such as IRNSS or Beidou1 are not listed.

    GPS - United States - Fully Operation
    Galileo - EU/China/Israel/South Korea/Norway/Etc - 2013
    Beidou2/Compass - China - 2012?
    GLONASS/ - Russia/India - Complete in 2010

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