Technology, what could go wrong?
by Jason Lorraine, Assistant Vice President of Product Sales & Strategic Solutions, JETNET
Let me set the scene for you. I’m hurling across the skies in a metal tube, enjoying the cabin ambiance on a 2018 Boeing 737 Max after scoring an empty exit row seat on a six-hour flight. Enroute to Las Vegas, I’m feverishly typing away on my keyboard when the cabin Wi-Fi light is illuminated (thanks T-Mobile).
Immediately jumping on ADSBexchange.com (unapologetic Av Geek), I’m pleased to see I am cruising at 33,000’ at 472k kts. I dive deeper into the live map on ADSBexchange.com and am captivated by my ability to see every origin and destination this aircraft has visited in the last few days (this is a new feature we just launched – be sure to go check it out.)
Why am I heading to Las Vegas, you ask? To test my luck at speaking to hundreds of Aviation Professionals from around the world and profess the virtues of independent live ADS-B data, as well as the JETNET Marketplace and AERODEX suite of aircraft data products at 2023 NBAA-BACE - that’s why!
I know what you’re thinking, “what the heck does any of this have to do with this blog?” Well, everything! As I begin to get more comfortable in my exit row seat, I can’t help but wonder what the two pilots up at the pointy end of this flight are using to guide this aircraft to my destination. They surely aren’t using a map sprawled across their laps or using roads and landmarks to navigate. So, what then are they using? Are they relying on the stars, moon, or sun to get me to my destination safely? No. A marvelous, invisible technology that has been around a few decades? Nope. What is it? Well, it’s called a Global Positioning System, or GPS for short.
Image: Webster Dictionary
GPS hasn’t always grabbed the best headlines. Do you remember headlines like these from the early 2000s? “Family Takes Surprise Cliff Dive”, “Tourist’s Car Takes a Dip in the Lake Thanks to GPS,” and the classic “GPS Takes You to the Wrong Springfield—D’oh!” It’s like a comedy show, but in real-life. (sorry GenY if you had to google that reference).
Thinking back to simpler times in my younger years, firing up my brand-new Garmin 12XL (told you I was an Av Geek), it would take 1 minute to boot up, and then 3 – 5 minutes to connect to enough satellites to give a rough idea of where I was… at the state level… after a few more minutes and satellite connections, it would get me within a 5 – 10 mile radius. Back then, that was considered lightning-fast, and it was. Fast forward 20+ years to today, when I land at KLAS in a few short hours and turn off ‘Airplane Mode’, it’ll take only a matter of seconds to acquire my exact location within inches, not miles! Today, we get our precise location down to inches faster than you can say, “Are we there yet?”
Unfortunately, with the many strengths of GPS, there are equally as many adverse forces at play. GPS jamming and spoofing is as prevalent as it’s ever been. Recently, aircraft in the Middle East around the Persian Gulf seemingly veered or teleported 60-90 nm miles off. Or so said the expensive equipment in the avionics bay. The truth is that a nefarious actor in the region was spoofing satellite signals utilized by aircraft.
Why are these recent events critical to understand? Some of the more immediate ramifications are misleading aviation navigation, unintended flight routes, and incorrect precision approaches just to name a few. However, many of these are compounded by the automation these systems use, resulting in a cascading waterfall of failures in the Avionics Bay. A large share of the automation is reliant on accurate GPS data. Everything from SMS to navigating routes could be affected.
Thankfully, none of the recent spoofing incidents resulted in a loss of life nor an international incident. All occurred with modern aircraft, ranging from a Gulfstream G650, Falcon 8x, Embraer 650, and a Global Express, to name a few – all with multiple redundant systems. It’s frightening to think that the GPS signal itself, for lack of a better term, could be hacked. The pilots in these situations have to rely on dead reckoning and ATC vectoring to make it safely to their destinations and alternates.
What can be done to combat this issue and deter hackers?
One solution? ADS-B signals. ADSBexchange.com has worked with various parties around the globe, leveraging ADS-B signals to detect spoofing and jamming. One of the key pieces of data sent by ADS-B antennas is the GPS accuracy (GPS/GNSS). By leveraging and comparing INS (Inertial Navigation System) data against those using spoofed/jammed signals, they can ascertain where spoofing & and jamming events are occurring. It’s a small step in understanding and knowing when these events occur. At the end of the day, any spoofing or jamming is a safety concern for everyone. For a look into how ADS-B Exchange data can be leveraged to show jamming/spoofing, check out GPSjam!
Another solution? The simple task of performing a complete IRS alignment if you are venturing into an area with known GPS jamming/spoofing. Check any NOTAMS and be aware of the hierarchy of GPS equipment in your aircraft in reference to IRS, DME/DME, VOR/DME and DR. It’s like preparing for a magic show: you need to know all the tricks before you pull that rabbit out of your hat. Speaking of which, I’m officially in the coordinates of the fabulous Las Vegas, NV (thanks, GPS). Now, if only I could equip my checked luggage with GPS… oh, wait…