February – averting satellite disaster

The British government turns out to have been ahead of the game on the  satellite risks I mentioned last month, with a £36 million programme just announced to  prevent navigational satellite failures damaging the economy by as much as £1 billion a day. It is feared that the entire country has become over-dependent on a handful of satellite systems.

Emergency services, the energy grid, mobile phones, Satnav, broadcasting and other communications, the Stock Exchange and an array of other activities all rely heavily on the super-accurate timing provided now by navigational satellites such as GPS and similar systems. There are life-threatening risks from failure, says the government.An image of a third generation Lockheed Martin GPS satellite

The new investment is in a National Timing Centre to create a network of super-accurate atomic clocks around the UK, accessed through ground-based communications, so that the economy will no longer be over-reliant on timing from GNSS signals from the sky.

GNSS is the term that embraces the US  GPS, the first system, Russia’s GLONASS satellites, Europe’s new Galileo and also a rapidly developing Chinese system.

Galileo failed completely for a while last year during its start up phase, because of operator errors, and there are now many examples of interference with GNSS systems and malicious ‘spoofing’, in which navigation instruments are fooled into thinking they are somewhere else. The heart of all navigation by satellite is accurate timing, without which positions cannot be fixed.

The Business Department said the centre will provide additional resilience against the country’s reliance on accurate timing, which underpins many every day technologies.  “ If there were a large-scale failure, economic impact to the UK would be £1 billion a day”, the department said. “Loss of this accurate data would have severe and life-threatening effects, such as on getting ambulances to patients or getting power to homes around the country”.


The plan puts the UK ahead of the US, where the issue has been rumbling on since President Bush announced a new satellite resilience plan, and a law to authorise it was passed. Those early moves have not actually produced any results.

President Trump’s White House has just announced a new programme but it appears to be no more than studies for future investment rather than actual projects, according to the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (RNTF), a Washington group campaigning on the issue. The Foundation said the UK plan was a great initiative.

Almost nostalgically for small boat navigators with pre-satnav experience, the UK still operates a ground-based Loran navigation system, though receivers for yachts are no longer available (as far as I know). The RNTF believes that Loran may be expanded and incorporated in the UK timing resilience network, which it thinks will be wireless-based rather than land lines.

Amazing to think how dependent we are on one technology at the moment. Ten years ago we used to worry that the US might degrade the accuracy of GPS or switch it off in a war. That is now inconceivable, so dependent is the entire US economy on it at the moment.

More realistic dangers  include accidental  system failures, as with Galileo, deliberate or accidental interference on a regional or local level, and spoofing. If you think about what some idiot can do with a drone near an airport, imagine the chaos if disruptive forces started jamming and spoofing GNSS. The expertise to do that has been nakedly displayed in recent years in the Gulf and the Black Sea near Ukraine.

Back to earth: as I mentioned in an earlier post, plans are always tentative at this time of year, and so that is proving. The passage to north-west Spain I was writing about in December and January has run into the problem of coordinating two lots of family diaries, which can be tricky with joint ownership and joint sailing plans.

Various unmissable events on both sides now mean shorter periods on the boat this year, so the plans are evolving. Maybe we will go back
to south Brittany, where we spent three seasons recently.  Spring Fever on the River Vilaine, southern Brittany

We could always go down from there to Spain next year. There are so many lovely places on the French coast that it would be no hardship if that is what we decide.

Boat maintenance has been brought back home for me this month, with various canvas repair jobs to do on the safety equipment, sail cover and dinghy cover, plus rope whipping, and also ordering new lifelines and jackstays.

Got a great new  sewing  awl for canvas that is much quicker than a needle and palm..