HxGN RadioPodcast

Protecting your positioning solution

In this episode of HxGN Radio, we’re are looking at how the threats to GNSS are increasing, but technology exists today to detect and mitigate against these threats.

We are joined by Neil Gerein, Senior Director of Marketing, from Hexagon’s Autonomy & Positioning division. Neil Gerein has worked in the navigation and positioning industry for the last 20 years, with a focus on technology and products that lead to assured positioning.

BK: Welcome to HxGN Radio. My name is Brian and in today’s podcast, we are looking at how the threats to GNSS are increasing. But technology exists today to detect and mitigate against these threats. Joining me today is Neil Gerein, Senior Director of Marketing, Autonomy, and Positioning division. And Neil has worked in the navigation and positioning industry for the last 20 years. He has a focus on technology and products that lead to assured positioning. So, Neil, thank you. Appreciate it.

NG: Well, thank you for having me. Yeah.

BK: I appreciate you joining me, and we got a chance to have a nice little chat beforehand talking about all kinds of stuff, which is great. But let’s enlighten our listeners right now. Tell us about yourself, a little bit about what you do, and what you’re nerding out on.

NG: Okay. Well, engineering background, been working with the Hexagon team for over 20 years. Really like the technology because every day’s fun, we’re always doing new stuff. And just when you think “hey, we’ve solved all the problems”, there’s more problems that prop up. Nerding out, much to the chagrin of my family, I’ve taken up accordion playing during the pandemic. Fantastic, love it. It’s fun going out and finding some accordions and turns out they’re cheap because people want to get rid of them.

BK: Really?

NG: Yeah. Yeah.

BK: It’s just not popular anymore, is it?

NG: It’s not that popular anymore, but it’s fun. Yeah.

BK: So, you’re bringing back that.

NG: Bringing it back.

BK: Yeah. You and Weird Al both just like, hey, this is what it’s going to be.

NG: That’s what it’s going to be. Yeah.

BK: Well, the family one day will thank you.

NG: Yeah, I’m sure.

BK: Yeah. They’ll be like, “Wow that was, all those years, we should have been supporting it.” All right. Well, let’s talk about, first of all, tell me a little bit about how you came into Hexagon and into what you’re doing as well.

NG: Okay. Well, yeah, so right out of university I got a job doing GNSS work. And it was really exciting because the company I was working for at the time, they’d say, “Okay, well go test out and test it against the NovAtel, which was the NovAtel.” And I said, “oh, I’m Canadian. I’m going to actually just go work for NovAtel.” And so, NovAtel is a Hexagon brand. And so, truth systems. And what’s really key about it is GNSS, protecting that GNSS because people trust it. And so, our NovAtel brand within Hexagon, we make GNSS receivers. So that includes, GPS, the US system, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou. And so, all these positioning systems together, and we couple that with inertial measurement units, and we also have anti-jam products. So, it’s all about providing our customers and the NovAtel brand, the best positioning all the time.

BK: Good, excellent. So, explain why GNSS is vulnerable. And then, I mean, clearly going along with that, we need to talk about why it’s important to protect it.

NG: Yeah. So, it’s vulnerable because the GNSS satellites are in medium Earth orbit. That means they’re approximately 26,000 kilometres above the centre of earth, a long way up there. They transmit at a fairly low power, only about 100 watts out of the front of the satellite. That means by the time the signal hits Earth, it’s below the thermal noise floor. And so that’s one of the reasons that we can share all these GNSS signals from the different constellations. But that strength also has a vulnerability. And that vulnerability is it’s really susceptible to RF interference when the signal power is that low. So, any sort of interference within the GPS bands can have an effect on your GNSS solution. And it’s illegal to jam GPS, but there can be unintentional sources or intentional sources. So, if somebody wants to block your GPS, or they might have a personal privacy device, which are illegal, but they have it, that can knock out GNSS. All the way to state level actors that can knock out all of GNSS for entire regions.

BK: How common are these disruptions?

NG: Well, the small disruptions are happening all the time. So, people, a lot of times don’t know, they may say, “Oh geez, all of a sudden I’ve lost my signal, I was out doing some surveying and something’s going wrong.” And so, they don’t know what the problem is. And so, some of the technology we’ve been introducing in the last few years is for situational awareness, which is, oh, you have a problem. And so that’s what’s going on. So that’s very important for users. For large jamming areas we have a lot of customers, we do have in defence around the world. And these are certainly happening. Because GNSS can be so vulnerable. There are state level actors out there. And then those people that are jamming, that leaks out into the commercial world as well. So, we have commercial customers that say, “Oh, I’m sailing in the Mediterranean, or I’m a commercial vessel in the Mediterranean. And something’s going on with my GNSS positioning.” And we can trace down and say, “Oh yeah, it’s interference. And we can tell you where that interference is coming from.”

BK: Okay. So, you’ve got your accidental ones and you’ve got your intentional ones. What kind of threats are we talking about? How serious are they? And what’s the impact of them?

NG: Well, so the impact is anywhere from productivity. So that’s number one. Time is money. And especially because we’re the autonomy and positioning division. Customers, if they’re going out and they’re doing some mobile mapping, for example. Well then it could be, “Well, geez, I had some interference, and I didn’t know what it was, and I get back and now I need to go do that run again.” But if you’re an autonomous system and you’re UAV flying and it’s being jammed, if there’s jamming happening, you can’t do your mission because you need to get that UAV back, that unmanned vehicle back… you need to be able to navigate. And if you can’t navigate, you can’t do autonomy. So, it means a complete shutdown of the system. And if you’re… other cases like out in the middle of the North Sea, and you’re doing dynamic positioning on an offshore oil rig, and that’s relying on GNSS, you need to have that signal. It becomes a safety-of-life issue because you have to keep the oil rig connected to the ocean floor, or you have to shut off the flow. So, you have everything from it being a minor annoyance to being… it’s mission critical to have your GNSS.

BK: Sure. Wow, yeah. Okay. So, is there a way that you can detect the interference with the spoofing?

NG: Yeah, there sure is. So built into all of our NovAtel OEM 7 receivers, right within the receiver we now have processing where we can detect if something’s going on. And because we’re a high precision receiver, we come from a heritage of people using it, other Hexagon divisions uses our stuff inside their survey equipment. And so, we’re really used to this high precision world. And in the high precision world, we put things inside of our receivers where we can detect the RF power, very exact. And so, what we do now in our latest generation of receiver, is if something’s out of the ordinary and you’re starting to get more interference, more signal power, we alert the user. We’ll raise a flag and say, “Something’s wrong, go check this out.” We can add mitigation within there – for example, we can notch out interference, the same ways in audio. You might have a feedback on a microphone, so you would see where the feedback’s happening, “Ah, it’s one kilohertz, I’m going to bring down, add a filter there to take out that feedback.” Same thing can happen at the GNSS frequencies. We’re getting some interference; we can bring it down. So that’s one of the simplest mitigations, because that’s in everything. When you get up to the large interfering powers. For example, if you had just even a 10-watt jammer, a 10-watt jammer clear line of sight could take out all GNSS for 50 kilometres. And this is something that a state level actor would do. In that case, you need to have a stronger mitigation. We have what we call our gadget GPS, anti-jam antenna line. What it is, is multiple antenna elements, using multiple antenna elements you can then change the apparent gain pattern of the antenna to be weaker in the direction of the jammer. What that can allow you to do is add up to what we say, 40 dB of jamming protection. So, what does that mean? Well, if you were getting no GSS for 50 kilometres, now you can get it to within a few hundred meters of the jammer. You can hear the generator running and you can go do something about it.

BK: Okay. Very cool. So, some obviously great mitigation opportunities in place, really. Anything else that we’re missing?

NG: Well, the other thing that can really harm your position that’s becoming more and more… people are in tune to what could happen, is something called spoofing. So, the GNSS signals, you can copy those. And back in the old days, you might need to have, again, a state level actor that says, “I’m going to create a simulation of the GNSS signal and I’m going to transmit it toward something and I’m going to capture a ship.” It was a plot of a James Bond movie back in day. But it’s actually possible nowadays. And the reason it’s become more and more popular is because Pokémon Go. A few years ago, people playing Pokémon said, “Oh, I want to go capture this Pokémon, but it’s in, I don’t know Indonesia. So how do I make it look to the receiver on my phone that it’s in Indonesia?” Well, you spoof that signal. And how do you spoof it? You go onto Amazon, you buy a hack RF. Yeah. Go to GitHub, you download the code for it. And for under a hundred dollars and some free code, people were creating GNSS spoofers. But it’s a real danger, and this could be really disruptive. First of all, they might just be intending it to have it over top of their phone to play Pokémon Go, but it’s leaking out and it’s affecting other people. But if it’s an intentional spoofing, for example around a mine site, people can take the autonomous vehicles in the mine and they would move them out of place.

BK: Yes.

NG: Could be very dangerous.

BK: Yeah, catastrophic.

NG: Catastrophic, dangerous, illegal. But what can we do about it? The same technology we’re using to detect the interference, we can use versions of that within our receiver now to detect spoofing. So, if somebody’s coming and trying to spoof your signal, our latest technology, we’re noticing that power and we alert the user well before their signals actually spoof. So, spoof us maybe, fool us, not a chance.

BK: Nice. Nice. Now I’m not sure if you can share these or not, but if you can, do you have any examples of more of the inadvertent spoofing? Well, I mean, let’s do both sides, but the catastrophic ones and the inadvertent ones. Examples of what actually has happened.

NG: Oh yeah. A really good example of some of our customers over the years that had inadvertent spoofing was this idea that they were rolling out an aircraft from their hangar to take it off, vertical take-off landing, to go fly an unmanned mission to go do some mapping. And what they wanted to do is be as efficient as possible. So, they had a GPS re-broadcaster inside the hangar because you can’t get GPS and GNSS inside. So, they just took an antenna and they were rebroadcasting the GPS signal inside to prime the receiver, if you will. So as soon as they went out, they were ready for the mission. Well, you open up the hangar doors and that is rebroadcasting out into the real world. So other receivers were effectively thinking that they were inside the hangar when they were not, and it was creating spoofing of other people’s and it was completely by accident. But it’s one of these cases. Oh, okay. Well, it was inadvertently spoofing like that. Certainly, a lot of cases of spoofing happening in the real world. We can’t really talk about some of those ones because of some of the defence customers that are looking at that. In terms of interference, lots of cases we’ve seen. We published a case study back in 2018 of one of our customers in India. It was at a university. And they were noticing every day they were kind of losing GNSS at all the different research places around this large university campus. So, we had one of our applications engineers, go out and taking one of our receivers that can measure the power of the interfering signal and the position. So, because we’re a GNSS receiver, we’re recording the position and the power, the interferer. Now our application engineers walked around the campus, took the information, loaded it back up to the laptop they’re running said, “Okay, I’m going to find the likelihood of where this interference is.” Lo and behold, they couldn’t pick it up with a spectrum analyser, but they could pick it up with our receiver and the sensitive processing techniques. Said, it’s on the edge of that building. They looked at the edge of the building, it was a weather antenna. And when they asked people who owned the weather antenna, it actually had a frequency where it was broadcasting out at 1,580 megahertz, which is really close to 1575.42, which is GPS CA code. So, they found the interferer. Then we could do something about it, which was first of all, go out and figure out what’s going wrong with that antenna that is broadcasting. I would fix the antenna. And then we said, we could also apply for the filters at 1580 digital filters within the receiver, so it was less susceptible. So, it was really good for the customer, because this had been plaguing them for months. They didn’t know what was happening until we went over there with our receivers and said, “Oh yeah, we can now tell you where the interference is,” inadvertent interference they had, stop it.

BK: Wow. Wow. Well, I’m impressed what you’re able to do and in helping the customers. I mean, that’s incredible. Now I guess I would be curious to know what your advice is for someone in this situation or how can they protect themselves? How can they set themselves up to do it correctly?

NG: Well, first thing is the situational awareness, knowing that something’s happening. And that’s the real change we’ve seen in the last few years, is customers before we’d phone, “Ah, geez, I have this problem” and the problem could plague them for months and they’d not know when it’s happening.

BK: So being aware that it’s going to happen.

NG: Being aware it’s going to happen. And also on the receiver, being able to just turn on the situational awareness, this are you being jammed and when are you being jammed? And these logs can come out of our receiver and right away it almost always solves the problem, because it’s usually in inadvertent interference. If it is intentional interference, then we can fingerprint the jammers with our technology. And then you can report that to the authorities and send somebody else to go fix it up.

BK: Awesome. Well, what do you think is coming in the future? What do you want to see? What do you think is actually coming for assured positioning, but also what do you hope comes as well?

NG: Well, sensor fusion, it’s going to be really key. What do I mean by sensor fusion… is while GNSS can be vulnerable, we have other sensors and solutions that can’t be jammed. For example, inertial measurement units. They run on the Earth’s gravitational field and the rotation of the earth. You can’t jam that; you can’t spoof that. So, all of our receivers now can be connected to inertial. So, we’re going to see more and more of the sensor fusion and that’s going to help protect the positioning. And it’s vitally important for a whole bunch of other things in autonomy, which is pitch, roll, yaw, overall availability. But that also creates the anti-jamming, anti-spoofing. So, people are going to become more aware. It becomes an arms race. Soon as we find a solution, somebody else is going to try to do something. The virus is the anti-virus, it’s the same sort of idea. So, we’re always got to be on our toes. We always got to be watching. Educating people of here’s some problems you might have, and then providing solutions in terms of situational awareness, how to go fix your problem then, and just overall resiliency. So, we say at the autonomy and positioning division, autonomy and positioning assured. That’s our view because that enables the autonomous future.

BK: Yeah. Very nice. Well, Neil, I really appreciate it. And thank you for sharing all this, any further thoughts? And by the way, where can we go for more information first? And then do you have any thoughts as well?

NG: Hexagonpositioning.com is where you can find more information. You can look our brands, NovAtel.com, veripos.com, autonomousstuff.com. And we have lots of different information there about resiliency and how to make your solution autonomy and positioning assured.

BK: Excellent. Well, thank you for joining me. I really appreciate your time and yeah, great conversation.

NG: Great, thanks very much.

BK: Absolutely, have a good day. All right, well, thank you very much for joining us today on HxGN radio. So, for more information and also to listen to additional HxGN Radio episodes, head on over to iTunes, Spotify, or SoundCloud. You can also visit hxgnspotlight.com for more stories from Hexagon. Thanks for joining us again and have a wonderful day.