Monday, November 3, 2014

If GPS Fails Container Ships and Other Vessels Can Still Be Safe in British Waters

UK Introduces a New, Yet Old, Aid to Navigation
Shipping News Feature

UK – EUROPE – Together with the huge advances in technology we have witnessed in the past couple of decades comes an inherent danger that many of the new systems introduced have become essential to safety. Whether driving a van, flying a plane or navigating a container ship these days see positional accuracy almost entirely dependent on GPS systems which, a generation ago, would have seen unthinkable.

The fact remains however that much of this new technology remains extremely vulnerable to outside forces, both within and beyond human control. Solar flares and weather events, deliberate electronic interference, all manner of things could result in a disaster often not considered by a generation which has grown up with ever improving technology. Realising this, someone within the UK Department for Transport (DfT) made the decision seven years ago to reconnect with an older, existing system of location, originally derived from war time necessity.

Loran was a position finding service using a system of fixed beacons with on board receivers able to detect incoming pulses. The technology developed rapidly, as is often the case in wartime conditions, and accuracy improved with 75,000 craft of all types said to carry receivers by 1945. As satellite navigation entered the scene the importance of Loran deteriorated and the accuracy and acceptance of GPS as not merely for use by the military developed, so Loran effectively vanished, despite the fact its own reliability and accuracy had also been much enhanced as time passed.

The decision in 2007 by the DfT in cooperation with the British and Irish General Lighthouse Authorities (GLA) to press on with a new, improved system, eLoran, has now come to fruition with the ability of vessels to receive signals from multiple stations at once whilst sailing in UK waters. Seven stations stretching from the North of Scotland to the busy Straits of Dover will be capable of reinforcing GPS data with extra accuracy, said to be less than ten metres, and of taking over completely should a failure of the satellite signals occur.

From last week the new system has become fully functional in the North Sea and the busiest shipping lane in the world after exhaustive testing including use aboard P&O’s cross Channel ferries. Extension across the West coast and into Irish waters will go ahead within six years. The original contract for the system was a 15 year deal granted to VT Communications which was acquired by Babcock International in 2010.

With the ability to ‘pass through walls’ more readily than GPS and the possibility of adapting the technology for other communications uses it is likely that this type of system will be adopted globally, especially considering the possibility, not just of natural circumstances causing interference to, or cessation of, satellite signals, but as an insurance policy against terrorism or political manoeuvring, as has been suspected in various international incidents in the past few years.