Monday, August 07, 2017

Back to the future?


The rise of computers in everyday life has been accompanied by the rise of hackers whose disruptions of our computerized life may be for fun or profit. International maritime shipping may soon go back to good old radio waves to back up navigation in the face of potential hacking of GPS systems.
Ships use GPS (Global Positioning System) and other similar devices that rely on sending and receiving satellite signals, which many experts say are vulnerable to jamming by hackers.

About 90 percent of world trade is transported by sea and the stakes are high in increasingly crowded shipping lanes. Unlike aircraft, ships lack a back-up navigation system and if their GPS ceases to function, they risk running aground or colliding with other vessels.

South Korea is developing an alternative system using an earth-based navigation technology known as eLoran, while the United States is planning to follow suit. Britain and Russia have also explored adopting versions of the technology, which works on radio signals.

The drive follows a series of disruptions to shipping navigation systems in recent months and years. It was not clear if they involved deliberate attacks; navigation specialists say solar weather effects can also lead to satellite signal loss.

Last year, South Korea said hundreds of fishing vessels had returned early to port after their GPS signals were jammed by hackers from North Korea, which denied responsibility.

In June this year, a ship in the Black Sea reported to the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center that its GPS system had been disrupted and that over 20 ships in the same area had been similarly affected.

U.S. Coast Guard officials also said interference with ships' GPS disrupted operations at a port for several hours in 2014 and at another terminal in 2015. It did not name the ports.

A cyber attack that hit A.P. Moller-Maersk's IT systems in June 2017 and made global headlines did not involve navigation but underscored the threat hackers pose to the technology dependent and inter-connected shipping industry. It disrupted port operations across the world.

The eLoran push is being led by governments who see it as a means of protecting their national security. Significant investments would be needed to build a network of transmitter stations to give signal coverage, or to upgrade existing ones dating back decades when radio navigation was standard.

U.S. engineer Brad Parkinson, known as the "father of GPS" and its chief developer, is among those who have supported the deployment of eLoran as a back-up.

"ELoran is only two-dimensional, regional, and not as accurate, but it offers a powerful signal at an entirely different frequency," Parkinson told Reuters. "It is a deterrent to deliberate jamming or spoofing (giving wrong positions), since such hostile activities can be rendered ineffective," said Parkinson, a retired U.S. airforce colonel.
With the large numbers of ships travelling through various bottlenecks like the English Channel and the Sunda Strait, accurate navigation is vital and the small loss of accuracy is a small price to pay for safety.

Comments:
Ships lack a backup navigation system? What happened to the old Loran system that was in use in the '60s and '70s? I remember there was a U.S. Coast Guard station near our port of Sattahip in Thailand. Their purpose was to maintain the Loran equipment. And it used to be a requirement to be issued a mate's certificate to demonstrate proficiency in navigating using a sextant. Were sailors of the 18th Century more skilled than modern seafarers?
 

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