Colorado has become the center of gravity for the next generation of global positioning technology — GPS III — which is expected to deliver three times as much accuracy, three times as much power and provide users worldwide with dramatically improved coverage from sea to mountain valley.
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is often thought of as the navigation system embedded in cars and smartphones. In reality, the technology — owned by the U.S. Air Force and provided as a free service to users worldwide — bleeds into every facet of civilian life and plays a major role in nearly every military operation. GPS requires three satellite signals to get a triangulated read on a user's location.
The Air Force is still sending up satellites in its GPS II constellation, but GPS III is already in the production phase, employing hundreds of Coloradans, with the satellite prototype nearly complete. The first satellite is expected to be delivered and ready for launch in 2014.
Head and Shoulders Above
The international community has its own versions of GPS, but experts say none compares to the United States' version.
"The GPS III is head and shoulders above the capabilities of those systems, especially in the military arena," said Mike Blade, senior aerospace and defense analyst at Frost & Sullivan.
Despite its success, the current constellation of GPS satellites has future limitations. As everyday life grows increasingly dependent on the signals pinging off these satellites — and as the U.S. military grows more reliant on the security of its satellites — most agree modernization is essential.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Jefferson County is on contract for more than $1.4 billion to build the first four satellites, as well as a non-flight test satellite. The project employs 75 people at Lockheed's Waterton Canyon facility with an additional 30 in support positions at the company's Colorado Springs location.
GPS III's new ground system — Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX) — is being developed and built by Aurora-based Raytheon for nearly $1 billion, employing 450 people and another 150 supported positions through the company's GPS subcontractors.
Once it is built, the entire system will be manned from Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
In addition to the major contractors, a host of Colorado subcontractors — such as Braxton, Boeing and Infinity in Colorado Springs — are playing an integral role in the GPS modernization efforts.
"Our estimate is that there are well over 1,000 jobs just in Colorado fully supporting GPS," said Keoki Jackson, Lockheed Martin's vice president for Navigation Systems. "It is an invisible, global utility that is completely ingrained in life."
If the GPS III program is built out to its full 32-satellite constellation, Jackson said it could be a multi-decade project where they send up two to three satellites a year.
Farmers Use GPS
While the project is likely to be an economic boost for the state, advocates say the true benefit will be improvements for end-users.
The world runs on GPS, with everything from farming, excavation, banking, first responders and crisis managers relying on the location and time system.
Each GPS satellite is equipped with an atomic clock, which is used to time stamp stock market trades, banking interactions and even consumers' credit cards as they pump gas. The new constellation is expected to deliver three times better accuracy, improving on a system that already gets a reading within nanoseconds.
Jackson said the U.S. farmer is a perfect example of an unexpected user of GPS. The agriculture industry uses GPS for precision farming over millions of acres, which saves money on fuel and supplies for the farmers, as well as protecting water sources from mismanaged chemical use.
"Almost every tractor is fitted with GPS," said Ray Kolibaba, Raytheon's vice president and OCX program director. "(These are) things that we wouldn't have thought of 10 years ago to use the signal for with the civil community."
Trimble Navigation, headquartered in California but with a location in Boulder, specializes in civilian applications based on precision GPS.
"We can guide farming machinery to within centimeters," said Peter O. Large, a vice president at Trimble. "We can guide a combine tractor precisely down rows of wheat at night. We can measure where in the field crops grow higher or lower. It uses high precision GPS to be more accurate about where you put fertilizers, where you put weed killers, etc."
Trimble acts as a consultant to the U.S. GPS modernization process and supports the efforts. The upgrade will increase the number of signals available for civilians from two to three, which ultimately increases the system's power to penetrate thickly covered areas and reach remote locations.
"The real benefit of the multiple signals is better coverage in more places. Once you get into the trees or places more obscured, it definitely helps us get more coverage," Large said.
This includes mountain terrain, tall buildings in a city or deep canyons.
New to GPS III is the system's ability to communicate on its new L1C signal with the international community's satellite constellations — such as the European Union's Galileo, Japan's Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), India's Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) and China's Compass system.
In order for a user to get an accurate position reading, he or she must be in line of sight with three satellites and in line of sight with a fourth to get altitude. The current system can get a user within 3 meters. The new generation will cut down the error distance to 1 meter.
"The more satellites you see, the better the (reception) you have," Jackson said.
According to Jackson, a major barrier previously to creating this "interoperable" system with the international world was getting the U.S. to agree to implement the protected civilian signal, L1C.
The new GPS III system will have an additional search and rescue component. The new satellites will be able to detect and retransmit distress signals coming from existing ground transponders, which will shorten the time of rescue.
Making it Tamper-Proof
In addition to the improved functionality, the new system is expected to be more tamper-proof — a growing concern within the U.S. government.
"The current system has limited protection capabilities because it was developed in the '90s," said Kolibaba of Raytheon. "Today, almost every computer system is vulnerable to insider and outsider attacks ... and the current system is vulnerable because it was not built with those in mind. One of our key goals is to make sure that (GPS III) has those kind of protections."
According to Steven Moran, director of GPS mission solutions at Raytheon, other nations are developing systems like GPS because of the economic and military value.
"The one thing they are not focusing on — and GPS is — is information assurance. We will be protected against cyber threats. Those other systems are probably going to be vulnerable," Moran said.
Blade said the U.S. government is very concerned about this, and satellite interference is what Iran is claiming to have successfully already done.
"If our enemies could figure out a way to deny GPS to our military, it would be crippling," Blade said. "That is why they really want this anti-jamming capability."
Jackson emphasized the importance of accurate and safe military signals as they depend more and more on targeted attacks.
"You don't want to have collateral damage; you want to minimize that," Jackson said. "(GPS III) reduces the area of risk by a factor of 4."
Current GPS satellites have a life expectancy of about 7½ years, but the new system is expected to extend its design life to 15 years.
Though the system will offer a vast improvement over the previous generation, cost remains a concern in the sequestration environment.
The Air Force, learning from its past, is looking into several cost-saving processes. First, it is exploring a dual-launch system, which basically means attaching two satellites to each rocket. The rocket launching process is a significant expense for any space activity, with a price tag of about $100 million per launch.
"Everyone thinks about cost, but the work that we are doing on the dual-launch capability will save $50 million per satellite," said Chip Eschenfelder, Lockheed Martin spokesman.
Jackson said design modifications are being worked out on the idea right now, and he expects dual launches as soon as the fifth GPS III satellite.
The Air Force also approved a non-flight satellites testbed for the first time in GPS history. The idea of the prototype is to resolve issues during development rather than the costly fixes that inevitably would arise during production or operation.
"So far, it has paid back more than double its own cost in savings," Jackson said in an e-mail.