President Trump Sign Executive Order to Study Threats to the U.S. Global Positioning System

President Trump Sign Executive Order to Study Threats to the U.S. Global Positioning System

Author: Eric Walz   

Many drivers in the U.S. rely heavily on the worldwide satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) for maps and turn-by-turn driving directions. It's also a crucial technology for self-driving vehicles that may one day traverse the nation's roadways. GPS has become so entrenched in our daily lives that most people take the free service for granted. 

However, GPS is actually a U.S.-owned utility, comprised of three distinct services, positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) collected by 24 satellites orbiting the Earth. Therefore, its critical that the nation's GPS is protected from vulnerabilities and the federal government is taking action.

President Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday directing U.S. agencies to test the vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure systems in the event of a disruption or manipulation of the Global Positioning System. 

More specifically, the order addresses the potential disruption of critical infrastructure that relies on positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), the core technologies behind the GPS. When PNT data is combined with map data and other information, such as traffic data, it supports GPS, which is the world's most used navigation service.

The order directs federal agencies to develop a plan to test infrastructure systems within one year. The order states that "disruption or manipulation of these services has the potential to adversely affect the national and economic security of the United States."

PNT signals are included among the 16 critical infrastructure systems protected by federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, as well as private industry.

With the transportation industry so heavily reliant on GPS, any widespread outages or computer hacks can disrupt travel nationwide, creating chaos at airports and on the nation's roads.


There are currently over 2 billion GPS users nationwide, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Outside of the transportation, GPS is crucial for keeping electrical power grids running, forecasting the weather, powering of location-based smartphone applications and banking and financial services. 

Google Maps, for example, is one of the most used programs using the GPS, with more than 177 million monthly active smartphone users. Rival service Apple Maps had nearly 74 million monthly active smartphone users in the U.S., according to mobile data and analytics firm App Annie.

Since GPS is available worldwide, positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services provided by the 24 U.S.-owned satellites have become a largely invisible utility for technology and infrastructure, including the electrical power grid, communications infrastructure and mobile devices, as well as all modes of transportation.

The system is comprised of three segments, the space segment, which includes the 24 satellites circling the Earth, the control segment, and the user segment. The U.S. Air Force develops, maintains, and operates the space and control segments.

The control segment refers to the monitoring stations worldwide that oversee and maintain the satellites, while the user segment includes military, governmental, commercial and other entities, as well as private citizens that rely on the GPS everyday.

The Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has estimated in one study that "a hypothetical disruption to GPS could result in $30 billion to $45 billion in economic losses over a 30-day period."

Because of the widespread adoption of PNT services, the disruption or manipulation of these services has the potential to adversely affect the national and economic security of the United States, which spurred President Trump to sign the executive order.

However, a newer time source, available through a commercial fiber optic cable, will instead use commercial telecommunication networks, which are more accurate than the current internet-time service by a factor of 1,000, the Commerce Department said.

Under Trump's order, the Commerce Department is making its independent source of precision time available within 180 days to both the public and private sector to assist critical infrastructure owners and operators.

Congress has raised concerns about the vulnerability of GPS systems and satellite communications in the past. Reuters reports that a group of U.S. lawmakers wrote the Trump administration in May 2019 saying GPS signals were "exceptionally weak and easily disrupted."

The U.S. Transportation Department plans to recommend a backup GPS system or systems by the end of the year, officials said. Testing of 11 technologies in Massachusetts and Virginia will be completed by May.

Electric automaker Tesla is one company researching ways to improve upon GPS. Tesla is developing self-driving vehicles, so geo-location accuracy is critical for the automaker. The company filed a patent application that was made public in 2018 called "Technologies for Vehicle Positioning", which Tesla believes will result in more accurate GPS positioning. 

The invention would improve positioning accuracy with a system of matching camera data from its cars with vision maps to "fine-tune" the GPS data. It would detect and match locations using other vehicles in its fleet as "reference stations" to calculate a set of corrections for various error components. 

Tesla vehicles would then share these corrections with each other, so that pinpointing the precise location of any Tesla vehicle is possible, even with weak GPS signals.

The patent application describes software that allows vehicles to send signals and positioning data to each other, instead of receiving it from orbiting satellites. As a result, Tesla vehicles would function like Earth-based GPS satellites, feeding precise positioning information to other Tesla vehicles on the road.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally hailing from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. He has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology.
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