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LORAN, is that you?

LORAN, is that you? The next new thing looks familiar

As we increasingly pack our fragile navigational eggs into an already crowded basket, the potential for Doomsday-type scenarios is becoming increasingly stronger. The first of these troubling outlooks centres around the period of hectic sunspot activity which began about a year ago and which will continue into 2013.
Writing in 2006, the British journal New Scientist reported “When solar activity peaks in 2011 and 2012, it could cause widespread disruption to aircraft navigation and emergency location systems that rely heavily on satellite navigation data." Since solar activity occurs in an 11-year cycle, this will be the first time that solar activity has met up with the newly prevalent GPS technology. In past cycles, the use of the technology was limited to military and advanced civilian uses, such as aviation. This time around, GPS is embedded in all kinds of electronic equipment and serves as a kind of universal clock, coordinating ATM cash-dispensing modules, trucking schedules, and can locate the source of photographs uploaded to the Internet. Just last week, the first of many solar bursts interacted with the polar magnetic fields to produce dramatic Aurora displays in the far north of Canada.
Part of the problem is the extreme weakness of the GPS signal. “It's like a car headlight 20,000 kilometres away," says consultant David Last, former president of the UK's Royal Institute of Navigation, quoted in a recent issue of New Scientist. A small amount of interference is sufficient to block the signal. A related problem is the recent development of cheap GPS jamming technology. Stimulated by the increase in surveillance devices installed in company cars, long-distance trucks and other commercial vehicles, not to mention charter yachts as discussed in a related story, jammers confuse GPS receivers and transmitters into either displaying no signal at all or else recording erroneous information. Whilst the devices are marketed as a way to protect personal privacy, the opportunities for mayhem, and criminal or politically motivated terrorism are obvious.
One solution being discussed is a revival of the old LORAN navigation system. A similar triangulation system to GPS, LORAN is ground-based, relying on radio towers for signal transmission. Its strong signal is much more resistant to jamming than GPS. Unfortunately, the US is phasing out its LORAN capability whilst European authorities are rapidly trying to restore and develop theirs. The cost of reviving and operating LORAN in the US is estimated at less than the cost of a single GPS satellite. The folly of that decision might soon become apparent as the sun continues its bombardment and jammers continue to harass the navigational nervous system of the planet.
Navigation as practiced aboard ship may soon regress (or is that advance?) to the technology of a few decades ago—involving sextant, almanac and a reliable timepiece. That technology might be enhanced by the new LORAN, and a return to the once-familiar paper charts with the intersecting curved lines and esoteric numbers that defined that system of navigation until quite recently. Unless the shipping authorities decide to emulate the Federal Aviation Administration's recent approval of the iPad as a replacement for paper charts on certain aircraft. Packing that egg into the navigational basket, relying as it does on the fragile GPS system, may prove to be recipe for scrambled signals and fried beams.

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