Simple, Inexpensive Jammers Threaten GPS

By Parsons, Dan | National Defense, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Simple, Inexpensive Jammers Threaten GPS


Parsons, Dan, National Defense


* When hunting for a particular restaurant or driving to a business meeting in an unfamiliar city, the global positioning system can be a lifesaver.

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The satellite constellation also provides the backbone for nearly every navigational system used by the U.S. military. It is one of the tools that Air Force officials repeatedly describe as a "must have" in operations from routine training to combat missions on the ground, at sea and in the air.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Space Command, said in June that the 31-satellite GPS system in orbit is "performing extremely well."

"This constellation just keeps on ticking," he said.

Such a valuable asset to the U.S. military and commercial sector, GPS presents a juicy target to potential adversaries and criminals alike, the Department of Homeland Security has recognized. Industry, acting on those concerns, is preemptively developing technologies to protect the GPS signal and identify anyone trying to disrupt its transmission.

The Air Force awarded contracts for the first eight satellites of the next-generation GPS constellation that will improve its capability and security. But back on Earth, technology has progressed to where portable, inexpensive, readily-available jammers threaten the GPS signal for commercial, civilian and military users.

GPS receivers have shrunk to fit inside a smartphone or in the dashboard of a car. But the same developments have made the signal that guides a person to the grocery store, or a warship into a harbor, vulnerable to interference.

An inexpensive Chinese-made jammer the size of a pack of playing cards can scramble a GPS signal enough to make trucks invisible to GPS tracking. Multiple jammers in one area have the potential to throw ships off course or interfere with airline navigation, Kevin Farrell, general manager for ITT Exelis' position, navigation and timing division, told National Defense.

Exelis recognized the vulnerability and preemptively developed a device that can turn the GPS infrastructure around on those trying to disrupt it. Signal Sentry can detect and geolocate the jamming signal so authorities can stop the interference.

"Jamming is a technology that is very simple and is available at the entry level--you can buy a $20 GPS jammer from the Chinese to keep your boss from knowing where you are delivering goods," Farrell said. "We have proactively developed the ability to geolocate multiple jammers and give law enforcement, port authorities or local governments that critical infrastructure."

GPS jamming is the act of interfering with the ability of receivers to lock onto the GPS signal, eliminating the ability of the user to determine 3D positioning or calculate other information such as time, speed, bearing, track, trip distance and distance to destination.

The availability and usage of low-cost GPS jamming devices have resulted in the increased threat of intentional and unintentional disruption to commercial and industrial systems that rely on precise GPS data.

There are several nefarious uses for GPS jammers, which are not illegal to own. Convicts serving house arrest can use them to confuse court-ordered ankle monitors. Commercial truckers can carry one to jam roll-through tollbooths or to evade efforts by their employers to track their routes.

Exelis originally developed Signal Sentry based on a DHS concern that GPS jamming might pose a risk to the United States, said Joe Rolli, program manager for the technology. …

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