Could Worldwide GPS Die in 2010?

Houston, we have a problem.....

GPS Constellation

GPS Constellation

For over a month now there has been some chatter regarding the stability and reliability of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and now there is a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) with some very disturbing news concerning the GPS system as we move into the very near future.

The GAO, in recognition of the importance of GPS in positioning, navigation, timing data, and U.S. national security, to name a few, has undertaken a broad review of GPS, particularly in light of the Air Force GPS acquisition program and GPS modernization efforts. GAO assessed the following programs:

  1. Acquiring GPS satellites.
  2. Acquiring the ground control and user equipment necessary to leverage GPS satellite capabilities.
  3. Coordination among federal agencies and other organizations to ensure GPS missions can be accomplished.

What they've found is a rather disturbing picture for GPS which includes uncertainty regarding whether the Air Force can acquire new satellites in time to maintain the current GPS services without interruption. The GAO summarizes the following:

  1. In recent years, the Air Force has struggled to successfully build GPS satellites within cost and schedule goals; it encountered significant technical problems that still threaten its delivery schedule; and it struggled with a different contractor. As a result, the current IIF satellite program has overrun its original cost estimate by about $870 million and the launch of its first satellite has been delayed to November 2009--almost 3 years late.
  2. Further, while the Air Force is structuring the new GPS IIIA program to prevent mistakes made on the IIF program, the Air Force is aiming to deploy the next generation of GPS satellites 3 years faster than the IIF satellites. GAO's analysis found that this schedule is optimistic, given the program's late start, past trends in space acquisitions, and challenges facing the new contractor. Of particular concern is leadership for GPS acquisition, as GAO and other studies have found the lack of a single point of authority for space programs and frequent turnover in program managers have hampered requirements setting, funding stability, and resource allocation.
  3. If the Air Force does not meet its schedule goals for development of GPS IIIA satellites, there will be an increased likelihood that in 2010, as old satellites begin to fail, the overall GPS constellation will fall below the number of satellites required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to. Such a gap in capability could have wide-ranging impacts on all GPS users, though there are measures the Air Force and others can take to plan for and minimize these impacts.

The GAO report further states:

"In addition to risks facing the acquisition of new GPS satellites, the Air Force has not been fully successful in synchronizing the acquisition and development of the next generation of GPS satellites with the ground control and user equipment, thereby delaying the ability of military users to fully utilize new GPS satellite capabilities. Diffuse leadership has been a contributing factor, given that there is no single authority responsible for synchronizing all procurements and fielding related to GPS, and funding has been diverted from ground programs to pay for problems in the space segment. DOD and others involved in ensuring GPS can serve communities beyond the military have taken prudent steps to manage requirements and coordinate among the many organizations involved with GPS. However, GAO identified challenges in the areas of ensuring civilian requirements can be met and ensuring GPS compatibility with other new, potentially competing global space-based positioning, navigation, and timing systems."

Professional Land Surveyor Source:

I recognize that we, as professional land surveyors, are only one subset of the many users of GPS today, but any interruption or downgrading of GPS services would be a disaster to our industry, as I imagine it would be for all the other users of GPS.

I think this issue does not get a lot of attention from our politicians, or on "Main Street", but this is, nonetheless, a most serious matter requiring immediate action and leadership.

See GAO report of May 7, 2009 entitled: "Global Positioning System: Significant Challenges in Sustaining and Upgrading Widely Used Capabilities"

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Eric D. Colburn, PLS, "The Geo-Business Innovator", helps geo-professionals improve through innovative solutions, mastery of marketing and business growth strategies, and coaching/training. Eric is a successful, serial entrepreneur, podcaster, industry writer, product development consultant, and RI licensed professional land surveyor.

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