U.K. Pioneers Radio-Wave ‘Lighthouses’ to Aid Ships if GPS Fails

Britain has opened the world’s first array of ground-based radio stations designed to help ships determine their positions and prevent collisions in the event of a failure of the GPS satellite system.

The seven stations, overlooking waters from Aberdeen in Scotland to the world’s busiest sea-lane at Dover, will beam low-frequency pulses allowing vessels to continue through breaks in global positioning system transmissions caused by solar storms or jamming, according the General Lighthouse Authorities of the U.K. and Ireland, which will run the network.

As well as safeguarding ships, the system -- which updates Long Range Navigation technology used by trans-Atlantic convoys during World War II -- could also protect electricity grids, mobile phone networks, trading systems and the Internet in the event of outages. Other countries are consulting on the use of Loran, among them South Korea, which suffered a 16-day jamming attack by North Korea in 2012, the GLAs said in a statement.

“Signals are vulnerable to interference and both deliberate and accidental jamming, which is causing increasing concern because of the wide availability of GPS jammers online,” the group said, adding that gear costing 30 pounds ($48) can cause complete outages across all models of receiver.

‘Insurance Policy’

The ground stations going live today are on Britain’s North Sea coast and at the eastern end of the English Channel, where waters are busiest, with the system to be extended to the west coast and Ireland by 2020. Transmitters are located mainly in ports to maximize positional accuracy at the most critical part of the voyage, and will provide a signal that’s a million times stronger than from a satellite 12,500 miles high.

“With this network we’ll be able to guarantee the seamless operating of shipping even if GPS goes down, and there are much wider applications too,” said George Shaw, principal development engineer at the GLAs. “It’s an insurance policy.”

An 800 billion-euro ($1 trillion) chunk of the European economy -- equal to 7 percent of the total -- currently relies directly or indirectly on satellite navigation applications, the statement said, citing European Union figures.

Enhanced Loran technology, which unlike GPS can reach inside buildings, underground and through water, was tested on Dover-Calais English Channel crossings by Dubai World’s P&O Ferries, whose vessels have “occasionally experienced loss of satellite signal,” according to safety chief Grant Laversuch.