Positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) can be called “the invisible utility”. Companies, consumers, and governments become daily more reliant on PNT services, but few are really aware of the technologies, organisations and people that keep those services working.
In November, the Royal Institute of Navigation (RIN) in partnership with Spirent hosted a seminar to bring together the UK’s leaders in government, industry, academia and key user communities to highlight the economic benefits of resilient PNT leadership and to develop a view of approaches, priorities and next steps. The consensus was that the sector must take a more prominent role in 2023 and beyond – not just because so much economic activity already depends on PNT services, but because PNT can and will play a key role in future GDP growth.
The economic case for resilient PNT
In the UK alone, the government estimates that as much as 17% of annual non-financial business GDP is now dependent on satellite services – an annual total of over £360 billion. While that includes all types of satellites, a large part of it is satellite-based PNT.
This dependence is growing amid a widespread lack of awareness about the vulnerabilities of PNT systems. Whether satellite or ground-based, and whether they rely on radio frequency (RF) or cellular wireless propagation, PNT services need to be resilient in the face of many threats – from deliberate signal jamming to hacks and compromises of software systems that use PNT as a source.
Failure to protect PNT systems and services can (and often does) result in incidents like one last October, where Dallas Fort Worth Airport was forced to close a runway and re-route flights over a two-day period due to unexplained GPS interference at the airport. When runways are closed and flights diverted, even a localised incident like this can cause considerable widespread logistical and economic disruption.
Resilient PNT can create new GDP value
Taking action to “protect, toughen and augment” PNT systems (in the words of GPS founder Brad Parkinson) isn’t just a way to ringfence existing economic value. It can also create net-new GDP value, by drawing on the expertise of the PNT community to design, develop and commercialise new resilient PNT services.
Those services will include secondary systems capable of providing accurate and robust position, navigation, and timing as an alternative to—or in concert with—Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). There’s also fast-emerging demand for expertise that integrates PNT security into the wider cybersecurity fold, to plug a vulnerability gap that’s becoming increasingly concerning.
If 2023 is to be the year the UK begins to demonstrate clear and decisive leadership in resilient PNT, it will require more emphasis on academia, government and industry working together to build the PNT infrastructure, devices, and services of the future. A sustained investment in start-ups, and investment into the development of the skills needed to grow these businesses is the cornerstone. There are many rewarding, high-value jobs to be created, so building talent pipelines now is critical.
Avoiding single points of failure with alternative PNT
A key topic for 2023 in the arena of resilient PNT will be the need (or otherwise) for government investment in alternative sources of PNT.
Today, for example, much of the world’s critical infrastructure—including energy grids and cellular telecommunications networks—relies on precise timing services provided by the GNSS owned and operated by major geopolitical powers.
But as reliance on PNT grows, dependence on America’s GPS, Europe’s Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS and/or China’s BeiDou may come to be seen as too risky, especially if any one of these constellations represents a potential single point of failure for a critical system.
Countries outside these blocs have long-mulled the prospect of investing in independent, alternative sources of PNT, whether space- or ground-based. Now, new and more affordable options, such as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations, are making such investments more attractive.
Any state investment in alternative PNT, however, must be evaluated as part of a range of measures and initiatives that align with government requirements and ambitions. Commercial and consumer users of PNT services have become used to them being cheap or free, limiting options for recouping costs, so this needs to be viewed through the lens of revenue enabling.
For any government serious about developing alternative sources of PNT, access to cutting-edge skills, and technological and infrastructure program management leadership will be essential. Further reasons to forge closer ties between government, academia, and industry in the coming years.
Realising the opportunity of resilient PNT
The need for resilient PNT, and the conditions that enable it, presents a major opportunity for developed economies in 2023 and beyond. In particular, countries with a strong existing track record in PNT have an opportunity to provide technological, industry and policy leadership on the international stage.
The UK, for example, has world-leading PNT expertise across academia and industry, and is a global R&D and manufacturing hub for technologies spanning all GNSS segments and alternative PNT services. Talent pipelines are already in place, but these must be more robust and are set to be strengthened through concerted industry outreach to schools and universities.
This long-established domain expertise means the sector already plays a key role in advising government on PNT-related policy, and is well placed to expand that role as PNT becomes increasingly critical to the modern economy. A national PNT focus—an idea mooted at the RIN seminar—could help to raise the profile of the industry and the opportunities available within it.
A higher profile for the PNT sector in 2023
Growing need for resilient PNT means the PNT sector will be a high-growth, high profit, high value industry for years to come, creating skilled jobs and materially contributing to GDP growth. The centrality of the sector to economic performance and national security means 2023 should be the year the invisible utility gains the layers of resilience needed to ensure it can continue powering national priorities. And, who knows, maybe even become a bit more visible.
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