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..

Marine survey accuracy

Data published by the International Hydrographic Organisation shows up a surprising fact: the UK and Ireland are below Turkey in the league table of survey quality by area of national waters. Spain, Portugal and France score much higher than the UK.

  

Source : selected countries  from an International Hydrographic Organisation table.

 % of area at depths from zero to 200 metres which has been adequately surveyed

% which requires re-survey at larger scale or to modern standards

% which has never been systematically surveyed

Mediterranean

 

 

 

Monaco

100

0

0

Spain

97

3

0

France

95

4

1

Gibraltar

95

5

0

Turkey

88

12

0

Slovenia

80

20

0

Italy

70

25

5

Croatia

39

39

22

Greece

35

55

10

Morocco

30

0

70

Albania

25

45

30

Serbia Montenegro

0

100

0

Cyprus

0

100

0

 

Atlantic, NW Europe 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portugal

100

0

0

Faeroes

100

0

0

Belgium

100

0

0

Germany, N Sea

96

4

0

Denmark

95

5

0

Canaries

95

5

0

Spain

94

6

0

France (Channel, North Sea)

89

0

11

France Atlantic

81

0

19

Norway

60

31

9

Azores

60

40

0

Netherlands

55

35

10

Iceland

52

48

0

UK

49

22

29

Ireland

26

74

0

 Greenland

25

25

50

Svalbard

10

1

89

Jan Mayen

0

0

100

 

Baltic

 

 

 

Germany

98

2

0

Finland

44

49

7

Poland

40

60

0

Sweden

25

74

1

Lithuania

16

84

0

Estonia

13

87

0

 

 

 

Checked January 2013

 There is one obvious reason why the UK’s position is relatively low; with a much larger area of shallow continental shelf, the British Isles has proportionately a far bigger survey to do than a country such as Turkey, where depths in many places reach 200 metres relatively close to shore.

Even so, it is widely known that there are cruising areas off the Turkish coast where chart accuracy is poor. Rod Heikell’s pilot warns that they can be out be by up to 2 minutes of longitude, considerably more than the warnings for anywhere on the British and Irish coasts.

 UKHO chart Q 6090 looks more deeply into the situation in the UK and Northern Ireland. It colour codes areas of the seabed by survey quality.  In the January 2013 edition, large parts of the coast of the Scottish mainland, Hebrides and northern islands, Wales, the Channel Islands, Lancashire and Northern Ireland are still marked as surveyed by leadline, or unsurveyed.

Follow this link to see UKHO chart Q6090

In an earlier 2006 version published in the AIB report on the Octopus (see Orkney Roulette page), the entire coast of  Ireland was marked as leadline surveyed. The republic’s coast has been left out of the latest Q6090, but the Irish government has now produced its own version of the chart, which shows a very large surveying effort since 2006.

Link to Ireland survey coverage chart

Interactive chart with local detail of Irish surveys

One result of the new surveys is that there have been new editions of 22 of the 60 or so admiralty charts for Irish waters since 2009, according to the Irish Cruising Club.

For practical decisions during a cruise, we have to rely on what electronic and paper chart publishers tell us about the underlying quality of their products, backed up, of course, by pilot book advice. This information can be pretty patchy. For example:

  • UKHO charts   have source data chartlets, a benchmark for quality.
  • Imray charts have no source data.  Some Imray charts do have general warnings on chart accuracy, eg for the Ionian and Turkey, where recent editions have quantified errors in the area as up to one minute and half a minute of longitude respectively.
  • Pilot books vary on the issue: Heikell has general warnings in his introductions of much larger errors in Greece and Turkey, of 1.5 minutes and 2 minutes longitude maximum respectively, but that covers a vast area.    
  • The Irish Cruising Club pilot’s latest edition for the West and South coasts of Ireland has gone much further, with localised chart accuracy information for different chapters, a good benchmark to aim for.  
  • Some other pilot books I have checked recently  do not seem to mention the accuracy issue at all, even where they cover cruising grounds which the tables above show have known  chart quality issues (for example parts of the Adriatic).
  • Many leisure electronic charts lack information on source data or other indications of underlying survey quality. They also lack last correction dates, and there is no detail of how comprehensive the updating is. Memory Map does reproduce source data diagrams on its raster charts but not edition dates, even though it is not hard to find UKHO charts for sale now whose most recent edition was three decades ago, for example on the West of Ireland.
  • To find comprehensive source information on an electronic  chart, you have to move to those used in Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems on ships, a different world,  where vessels equipped to a high enough standard are now allowed to dispense with paper charts altogether.

In preparation: articles on GPS accuracy and on what makes leisure charts unsafe compared with those used in ECDIS systems.