Open Systems Enabling GPS Backup Technology

By Meredith Roaten

iStock illustration

Operations in Ukraine have put a spotlight on the dangers of GPS-denied environments, through the proliferation of advanced technology that can disrupt a position, navigation and timing system’s connection to satellites or prevent it from knowing its location.

The Army, Navy and Air Force have all developed their own backup solutions and help service members find their way, but the open standards that make PNT possible are still a work in progress.

The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Pentagon to “mature, test, and produce alternative PNT equipment” within two years. A recently released Government Accountability Office report shows that the services have launched efforts to meet that timeline with the help of modular open systems.

The report, “DoD is Developing Navigation Systems but is Not Measuring Overall Progress,” found that some programs developing capabilities that are alternatives to GPS do not have complete “business cases,” which include independent cost estimates, risk assessments, schedule assessments, acquisition strategies and requirements documentation.

This documentation “has a statistically significant correlation with improved cost and schedule performance,” said the report.

One strategy that will help the Defense Department develop technology is prioritizing the modular open system approach, which will both lower costs and shrink development timelines. Most services achieve this by developing a piece of hardware called a multi-PNT receiver that can easily have different technologies swapped in and out. Because taking out old technology for new is less costly and time consuming, this streamlines the process of innovating and competing PNT technology.

By using a modular open system approach, the department “seeks to capitalize on cost savings, schedule reductions, more rapid deployment of new technologies and increased interoperability,” according to the report.

That is a movement happening across the department through what’s called a position, navigation and timing reference architecture, according to the Pentagon.

The first architecture was released in October 2021, but the open architecture collaborative initiative of the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and development is now working toward an updated release. It will align with “updates to the All Source Position and Navigation (ASPN) data standard and progress with Service Reference Architectures,” said Office of the Secretary of Defense spokesperson Tim Gorman in an email.

The services’ reference architecture teams work closely with the open architecture collaborative initiative team. The report found concerns at the Pentagon that the initiative would run out of funding before its completion, but the “rebalancing of funds” allowed the initiative funding through 2024, Gorman said.

Each of the services has its own approach to open systems. The Air Force has the Resilient-Embedded Global Positioning System/Inertial Navigation System, or R-EGI, said Mikel Miller, vice president for PNT at Integrated Solutions for Systems.

“The big barrier we’ve had to date is that every navigational system available to the Department of Defense is a proprietary closed solution,” he said.

The system — which is intended for the F-16 aircraft — uses PNT technology that is not as accurate as GPS but will perform well enough in an emergency situation if it gets knocked out, he explained.

“It would be good enough to execute a mission, but you could never transition anything because there was no way to get into those proprietary closed solutions … R-EGI wants to break that paradigm,” he said.

The program is behind schedule because of pandemic-related supply chain issues, he said. The GAO report noted the program has completed all its required documentation.

Miller said transparency between the Air Force and his company helps reduce timelines.

“We’re very comfortable when something doesn’t go right and realizing that’s just part of the process,” he said. “That allows us to get a decision quickly” about how to solve a problem, he said.

The speed of technology development has also become so much faster, he noted. Creating a new algorithm or software is now so quick that being able to immediately insert it through an open system approach would be a “gamechanger,” he said.

Integrated Solutions is in the process of assessing how long a parts delay for the system will hold up development, he noted. The worst case scenario would be no more than 18 months, but it depends on how soon parts arrive, he said.

The Navy’s effort is the upgrade to GPS-based Position, Navigation and Timing Service, or GPNTS, a program intended for surface ships. The Navy is currently drafting requirements for the program, according to the report.

The Defense Department’s response to the GAO’s recommendations said smaller programs like GPNTS — a program with an estimated $18 million over 9 years — need to be relieved from the additional time and funds that come with conducting a formal independent cost estimate.
“Instead, DoD said the GPNTS program met its fiduciary responsibility through a different cost estimation process,” the report noted.

While the GAO agreed that a formal assessment is not always feasible, the report suggested documenting an evaluation of some kind helps the program, the department and Congress make more informed choices. The Navy is also working on a smaller form factor version of GPNTS called GPNTS Hull Optimized System–Tactical, or GHOST.

Three other Navy assured PNT technologies lack some element of a business case, according to the GAO. That hasn’t affected the ability of Northrop Grumman to deliver low-rate initial production systems for the Navy’s upgrade of its GPS-based system, said Rudy Fernandez, operating unit director and Charlottesville, Virginia, site lead.

The Navy has not completed assessment of schedule or technology risk for the WSN-12 primary shipboard inertial navigation system, but there hasn’t been any effect on the company’s ability to develop and build the sensor, he said. The low-rate initial production phase for the first eight systems was completed in early September, Fernandez said.

“We are on track to provide the Inertial Sensor in September that will be installed in the first ship, using one of the [low-rate initial production] systems,” Fernandez said in an email.

The next milestone for the program will be delivering eight production systems in the first quarter of fiscal year 2023, he added.

Program officials told the GAO that instead of conducting a technology risk assessment, they would analyze a similar system. The report accepted this as a possible method but suggested the program should document when alternate methods are used.

The program officials were also in the process of conducting an assessment of schedule risk.

No service has dedicated as much funding to open systems architecture as the Army. The service has two main assured PNT technologies, mounted and dismounted assured PNT, or MAPS and DAPS. The GAO estimates that between fiscal years 2017 and 2025, the service has allocated $489 million and $160 million for each program respectively.

For both MAPS and DAPS, the Army has either completed, or is drafting, all the business case elements, the GAO said.

The most updated version of MAPS is getting underway, said Maj. Matthew Szarzynski, assistant project manager for mounted assured PNT systems integration.

Collins Aerospace was recently awarded a $583 million contract over the next five years for MAPS Gen II.

Its open architecture uses technology insertions “driven by feedback from the warfighter and system integration teams across the Department of Defense,” according to a Collins press release. The Army can add new sensors and capabilities at a lower cost over the system’s life cycle.

Jamming and spoofing have become particularly dangerous in the European theater after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Szarzynski said. That has driven the urgency of generation two of the service’s mounted technologies, he added.

“We need to move forward with phase two because as the threat evolves, we need to kind of match that threat,” he said during an Army media briefing.

The dismounted system has gone through several iterations, including a pod that connects to the Nett Warrior situational awareness system and a module that connects to a soldier’s boot, said Nick Topher, program officer for DAPS.

Size, weight and power are the biggest challenges for supporting the device, he said. One requirement for the platform that was approved in 2022 was to reduce the equipment weight down to 1 pound, which is challenging given the increase in capability and the amount of power needed for the M-Code chip — a technology that is now required for all GPS platforms.

The service is targeting a 2024 to 2025 timeframe for fielding, he said.

The dismounted capability will help soldiers in denied environments, said Brig. Gen. Ed Barker, deputy program executive officer for Intelligence Electronic Warfare and Sensors. In the past, navigation became rudimentary if the Defense Advanced GPS Receiver, or DAGR, was spoofed.

The PEO wants to make open systems architecture a way of life for the Army, said Chris Jais, product manager for PNT modernization. Part of that effort is the Open Innovation Lab, an unclassified facility stood up in November 2020 where industry can bring in their systems to test how they would work with the Army’s existing platforms.

Open standards are especially important for PNT technology because it puts less pressure on industry, he said.

“So when we talk about integration work, we’ve set those standards for them. They’re not guessing, they’re not using any proprietary standards,” he said during an Army briefing. “And really, what that allows us to do is layer solutions on top of each other.”

Showing industry partners that they are on the right path builds the trust necessary for collaboration, Jais added.

“We’ve been able to do a lot of market research through that, from the PNT perspective, and really proud of that factor of just constantly bringing in industry, seeing what they have, seeing where they can do future investments,” he said.

The Army is aiming to avoid the mistakes of the past by employing open systems, Barker said. Without open systems architecture, it was much harder to overcome sustainability issues for platforms long term, he added.

“That’s the last position we wanted to be in,” he said.

Learning from past mistakes also means making the most of the Army’s shrinking budget, Barker said. Creating the most efficient processes possible will ensure fiscal responsibility.

“The more we can standardize that and kind of lay the framework for folks to be able to lay capabilities on top of, ensure that the data is discoverable and shareable. That’s just the way we have to do things,” he said. “From a budget standpoint, the dollars are just not always going to be everything that you want, so you’ve got to make sure you’re prioritizing that.”


Topics: Electronics, Defense Department, Emerging Technologies

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