Necessity is the mother of invention. The famous proverb is tinged with a sense of inevitability in that if we desperately need an invention, it can only be a matter of time before we have one. One such example of this is an autonomous system that does not rely on a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) network. This would have multiple benefits, one of which is its presumed ability to effectively meet the challenges perennially faced by the maritime industry over piracy, smuggling and illegal fishing.
Considering the enormity these threats pose not just to individual lives, but also to the global economy, Abu Dhabi’s ASPIRE, has put its focus on such an innovation. It believes this can be best inspired through a global competition as opposed to an academic or independent quest, or even commissioned research.
Despite GNSS signals being vulnerable to jamming and spoofing for years, research on a GNSS-independent autonomous system is surprisingly sparse. In 2017, Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, a non-profit, educational and scientific charity reported that an examination of global ship tracking data for the two previous years showed many instances of multiple vessels reporting their inaccurate locations. Vessels were shown to being on land at airports far from where the ships were operating offshore.
The report quoted Dana A. Goward, President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, saying: “We first became interested in this problem in June when a vessel master in the Black Sea reported his GPS showing him to be at the Gelendzhik airport, about 25 miles from his real location. He provided photographs of equipment and other information that convinced experts his GPS receiver was being deliberately spoofed.” About 20 other vessels in the area were reported to be similarly affected.
While spoofing GPS takes more sophisticated equipment than jamming, the equipment is readily available. Readymade ‘GPS signal generators’ are currently available on the internet and are quite popular with Pokémon-Go enthusiasts. They are used to trick mobile phones into collecting rewards from remote locations without having to be physically there. “The real lesson from all of this,” according to Goward, “is that GPS signals can be easily spoofed”.
More broadly, GNSS, which refers to an international multi-constellation satellite system which includes GPS, as well as GLONASS, Baidu, Galileo, is equally vulnerable. Considering that GNSS signals have low power, a weak interference source can cause the receiver to fail or to produce hazardously misleading information. Until now, the biggest worry for GNSS has been that it can be jammed by masking the satellite signal with noise.
Spoofing and signal jamming are increasingly used by pirates targeting cargo and passenger vessels. Despite concerted global efforts to tackle maritime crimes, it is hard to abolish them considering that the manpower and capital required for this is impractically high, and that the oceans are too vast to cover.
On the contrary, a system that can make decisions autonomously and intervene or investigate any suspect in the ocean will not just prove to be an effective tool for security personnel, but also for seafarers. Benefits of such systems include consistency and elimination of human error, cost effectiveness over time, and preservation of human resources.
Such system also opens up a number of new application scenarios for the use of unmanned aerial and surface vehicles in the areas of automated inspections, especially where GNSS signals are poor, unavailable or vulnerable, such as a natural disaster zones, warzones, tunnels, urban canyons or even a distant planet. An invention of this magnitude will not just mean a big leap for autonomous, but it will vastly extend human capabilities.