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Why Is the U.S. Government Working Frantically to Get Rid of GPS?

America's Navstar GPS satellites. Soon to be superfluous? Photo: US Air Force.

Technically speaking, the Pentagon's top-secret weapons lab, "DARPA," stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. You could just call it the Defense Department's office of "Wow!"

Since its inception in 1958, DARPA has played a role in the creation of such technological wonders as the Internet (once known as ARPAnet), humanoid and animal-form robots, unmanned aerial vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and even Global Positioning Satellites, or GPS. DARPA's latest project -- "C-SCAN" -- has the potential to improve and perhaps even replace GPS.

10 times more interesting than C-SPAN
Teaming up with Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  ) as its primary contractor, DARPA is working today to integrate micro-electro-mechanical systems, called MEMS, and atomic inertial guidance technologies, forming a new "single inertial measurement unit" in a project designated the "Chip-Scale Combinatorial Atomic Navigator" -- C-SCAN.

Translated into plain English, what C-SCAN aims to accomplish is to create a chip that performs the functions today served by orbiting GPS satellites. The chip would constantly "know" where it is in space-time, and would have this knowledge without having to ping a satellite (and maintain line-of-sight communication with a satellite) to do it.

What C-SCAN might look like when complete. Source: DARPA.

Why do it?
If you've ever tried to access the GPS system on your car while parked in a garage, and been unable to do so while the device is "searching for satellites," you'll understand the usefulness of a device that can perform like GPS, without need for actual GPS. Elimination of the need to rely on satellites to determine one's location would similarly enable the use of "GPS-like" technology for getting directions within buildings and underground -- for example, in subway systems.

So C-SCAN has obvious civilian applications. Of course, DARPA's primary aim is enhancing the functioning of the nation's military. And C-SCAN would be invaluable for that purpose.

Why we need to do it
One of the primary vulnerabilities in today's hi-tech, ultra-accurate weapons systems, you see, is their dependence upon GPS signals to guide them to their destinations. American "smart bombs" and guided missiles all depend greatly on GPS to know where they are, and to get where they're going. American dominance in drone technology, similarly, depends on GPS.

Problem is, while we know this is a problem, the "bad guys" know it, too -- and can sometimes hack GPS signals so as to confuse, and even hijack, American weapons systems. Case in point: in 2011, Iran boasted that it had commandeered and captured a Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) RQ-170 Sentinel -- one of our most advanced "stealth" surveillance drones -- in flight over Iranian territory. The Iranians didn't have to shoot the drone down, either. Instead, they forced it to land in Iran, and captured it intact. According to Iranian engineers, this was accomplished by first jamming communications with the Sentinel's remote controllers, then "spoofing" GPS signals, tricking the drone into landing at what it thought was its home base in Afghanistan -- but what was actually an Iranian airfield.

Drones equipped with a future C-SCAN technology would be less likely to fall victim to such a trap. While their communications might be cut off, forcing them to default to autopilot and return to base, they'd at least return to the right base, because an internal chip would tell them how to get there.

The future is now
Current weapons systems often include internal gyroscopes, granted, that perform some of the functions that C-SCAN aims to perfect. But as DARPA observes, present-day gyroscopes are "bulky" equipment, "expensive," and don't perform with the kind of accuracy that DARPA wants to see.

The objective, therefore, is to explore cutting edge technologies to put gyroscope-like functionality on a chip, resulting in "small size, low power consumption, high resolution of motion detection and a fast start up time" -- all loaded onto one small microchip.

What it means to investors
If DARPA succeeds with C-SCAN, it will have obvious benefits for the nation's bombs, missiles, and drones -- but it would also benefit Northrop Grumman as DARPA's primary collaborator on the project. Last quarter, Northrop saw its revenues decline 4% as the U.S. government increasingly tightened its belt on defense spending. Market researcher IBISWorld recently released a report projecting that total U.S. government spending on defense would shrink 2% annually, year after year, over the next five years. But by helping the U.S. government solve one of its most vexing defense problems, Northrop could help secure as big a piece as available, of the shrinking defense pie.

Indeed, it might help to grow that pie. Microchip-based guidance could be the solution the military is seeking to an oft-discussed problem with the nation's newest generation of Mach 7 railguns, whose great range, speed, power -- and cheapness -- make them an attractive weapons system... if we can only figure a way to guide their projectiles accurately.

Miniaturized, GPS-like guidance systems-without-satellites would be even more crucial for introducing this technology into civilian applications. While you could probably attach a gyroscope to your smartphone, you might have trouble getting it to fit in your pocket. But put the gyroscope on a chip?

Voila! Instant GPS functionality, indoors and out.

That's a future worth buying into, for defense investors, and tech investors alike.

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When it comes to investing in hi-tech, Northrop's certainly one choice -- but Apple is usually the more obvious choice. Apple recently recruited a secret-development "dream team" to guarantee its newest smart device stayed hidden from the public for as long as possible. But the secret is out, and some early viewers are claiming its everyday impact could trump the iPod, iPhone, and the iPad. In fact, ABI Research predicts 485 million of this type of device will be sold per year. But one small company makes Apple's gadget possible. And its stock price has nearly unlimited room to run for early in-the-know investors. To be one of them, and see Apple's newest smart gizmo, just click here!

Read/Post Comments (34) | Recommend This Article (62)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 4:23 PM, tarchon wrote:

    This is an old idea. It doesn't work very well, but hope springs eternal. The basic problem with it is that integration error builds up very rapidly (since it's a double integration), and so you have to keep resetting the position estimate. DARPA fantasizes that they can fix that somehow, so they keep giving people money to put different kinds of bandaids on it. There's no way it's going to replace GPS, but it does have some potential utility in the case of temporary GPS denial and for some short term positioning applications (bombs are a good one) which is really DoD's main application for it.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 4:55 PM, j1rose wrote:

    First GPS for the armed forces can be encrypted . Second Drones should have a recall software if they can't find gps signals .. A better solution for the Usa at least could be a simple mirroring system with repeaters located roughly every few miles like cell towers -so it might cost 100 -200 million in the USA , but it would negate enemies knocking out satellites .

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 5:17 PM, vet212 wrote:

    I have never understood why GPS even existed when Inertial navigation came first. INS requires nothing from outside and is totally internal to whatever is being guided. given the precision of INS no new guidance system is needed

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 5:49 PM, SLTom992 wrote:

    GPS has the ability to be continuously reset to the proper readings but as tarchon notes - these proposed inertial guidance devices REQUIRE resetting because the timing is simply not of the required accuracy and never will be. Without accurate time none of the rest of it works unless it is reset by the GPS system meaning that we could not get rid of GPS. So all they're getting for their development is a bandaid.

    Now certainly they are good for weapons systems which never last long enough to develop significant errors but for real life uses there is no replacement for GPS.

    Funny thing - I helped develop the base unit for the UC Berkeley leg of the initial Internet and I don't remember DARPA having anything to do with it.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 6:16 PM, FrankMcKinney wrote:

    This sounds like the navigation systems that animals such as migratory birds, dolphins and even dung beetles use. We're doing great.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 6:34 PM, BigFED wrote:

    Just like when you are out hiking along, you have to continuously check your compass bearings, sun/moon/star references, landmarks and map. Those satellites are the reference points just like the landmarks one uses. This C-Scan "technology" is like telling a blind person how many steps in each direction and then send them off. One missed step, hesitation, or other untimely issue and they are LOST!!!

    Relying on this "technology' is like giving the hiker all the required information needed to complete the trek, but then putting on a blindfold and spinning them around eight times before sending them on their way!!!

    IF, big IF, everything works just right, it may work!!!

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 7:24 PM, anton3 wrote:

    I have two things to say about this which is actually a good idea. 1. This is yet another step in improving technology. Systems like these are always updating, improving, and evolving. 2. Anything made by man has a flaw. Case in point, what happened to the drone that was captured in Iran.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 7:34 PM, TheHighestPower wrote:

    GPS is too susceptible as a system to be relied on should we go to war with anyone who has decent capabilities. If our military had to rely on GPS, the first thing a country like China or Russia would do is shoot/disable the GPS satellites, which are impossible to defend.

    We need to develop a more reliable, and easy to defend system that is Earth based! Satellites are just too easy to target and destroy!

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 8:31 PM, RFTECH3000 wrote:

    First off DARPA is NOT a weapons lab but is more accurately described as a "think tank " , DARPA interfaces with the different branches of the armed forces to gauge their needs for new technology and then creates research initiatives based on those needs !

    DARPA then provides research grants to universities to conduct basic research in those key technology fields, DARPA also links the universities with prime defense contractors who at the end of the research phase take over and commercialize the findings !

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 8:41 PM, RFTECH3000 wrote:

    There are many key concerns about GPS , one is that it is a very costly system to maintain and that it is very vulnerable to attacks as the satellites are virtually unprotected in outer space !

    But there is a much bigger concern which is the possibility of terrorists using GPS devices to control drones or simple cruise missiles , the accuracy of GPS devices has been greatly improved over the last 10 years and with smaller and more powerful computers being available it has become very easy to build a guidance system with a fairly good accuracy !

    one could for example modify a single engine plane into a drone packing it with explosives or chemical agents and then have it fly into a crowd or a building !

    This always has been a key concern and the reason why the accuracy of GPS devices available for the commercial market was artificially degraded !

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 8:51 PM, TachyonDriver wrote:

    What is old is new again! Inertial Navigation Systems, INS, have been used for a long time since the days of spinning iron gyros. Current technology uses lasers and multiple accelerometers. The issue is that of initialization and updates for positioning. Since we live and work in time/space, an accurate calibrated time system is needed in addition to highly accurate position information for start up. What will be used for that reference? (I spent years initializing and updating INS systems on aircraft using ramp location maps and geographic known positions.) Also, errors accumulate and must be corrected or updated, which means more accurate time/position information references. The casual user is not going to put up with that! GPS is flawed, but will not go away anytime soon for the pedestrian user. There is too much invested by too many consumer technologies and companies. Cell phones would hack virtual hairballs, if the GPS system went down. No sense of humor after that!

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 9:22 PM, thegodfather4u wrote:

    ... When the NSA/CIA violated our rights guaranteed to all under the Constitution, they committed a violation of the 1st Amendment.They opened all the privacy doors you and I had to everyone in the entire world and it is all open now thanks to the NSA/CIA committing this illegal act against the American people and spying on all we held sacred, and the rest are sure to follow their game. I assure you all our emails, phones, social network conversations, passwords and discussions will be open to anyone and everyone, thus NOW OUR SO-CALLED SUPREME COURT (an oxy moron) IS TELLING AMERICANS THEY DON'T CARE bull, just fact !...The NSA/CIA is not only collecting phone calls, but also bank transfers, financial records, emails, travel records, social media communications, health records and more. All of this will soon be housed in the NSA/CIA new mega-data-center in Utah, where a 5-zettabyte storage facility will be completed this fall. All of the known digital information in the world is believed to be only about 2.7 zettabytes, so the NSA has big plans to spy on you. My biggest question is take a wild guess WHO APPROVED ALL OF THIS AND IS STILL DOING SO ...................

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 9:23 PM, brancwp wrote:

    As others have pointed out INS systems such as C-SCAN are differential...they can tell you what direction and how far you are going but they do not know the absolute location they are starting from. While they can sense coreolis and determine roughly where they are...they are not accurate enough for bombing without GPS.

    So they still need GPS. But the military wants to be able to degrade or spoof GPS at will in a war area without affecting our troops.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 9:39 PM, Hibiscusanole wrote:

    There are some things better done by human brains. I, as well as friends, have horror stories of the extra 15 miles out of the way that no person reading a map would go.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 9:55 PM, Leeland2 wrote:

    The United States has two decades of military planes that do not run via dynamic gyroscope and must rely on top down communication, obsoleting and embarassing a whole slew of military aircraft to helplessness as well as naval ships.

    This is why F-16 are being retrofitted and reconditioned, to work independently from GP-s.

    The navigational system of all military equipment rely on GPS and cannot rely on missing dynamic gyroscopes. A huge blunder of the US military.l

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 9:58 PM, yardomd wrote:

    Rogers rules, developed in French-Indian war, declared that it was OK to lie to the enemy. This before US Constitution has been written. The question today is: Who is the enemy and who can be trusted. Internet (and GPS) are best used for marketing and research. Motley Fool publishes research, hoping to enhance the data, and that it will be used wisely, for mutual benefit. If we did not trust each other, we could not do business.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 9:58 PM, DerekVance wrote:

    Tarchon.... A reply to your statement... "This is an old idea. It doesn't work very well, but hope springs eternal. The basic problem with it is that integration error builds up very rapidly" .... I flew for the USAF for 26 years. I retired from active service into reserves just 3 years ago. I still fly 2 weekends per month. The micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) has been wrung out very well. Once hyper accurate terrain maps became available, it gave the system an "on-demand" positional compensation system. Ground following radar was perfected in the cruise missile arena. MEMS now checks location against 3 reference systems at a rate of 2400 CPS (Cycles Per Second) those 3 systems being Inertial gyroscopic, GPS and Map of the Earth. The days of "resting the inertial direction finder" are long gone in all but the oldest and least upgraded aircraft. Map of the Earth technology was all radar based for years, but now that the utilization of lasers and IR illumination have been perfected, it even offers redundancy to a redundant system. The most common question to pilots is "how does Map of the Earth work over the Ocean or large constantly shifting deserts. This is where I believe the technology becomes the most exciting. Science turned to nature, particularly migratory birds and beasts who use the Earths magnetic fields to find their way. Over water, these fields are exceptionally clean. Much of the technology and facilities that have been the subject of every conspiracy theory around is dedicated to that science. In fact, they just closed one of their main facilities that has been blamed for all sorts of phenomenon. From weather generation to satellite spying and location. The Earths gravitational field has a unique "fingerprint" at every 3 dimensional location on earth. Even altitude effects it. The systems also learns. If magnetic fields shift, the other systems update that system. GPS is a technology used by civilians... The military uses it, but the day they stopped regulating it's accuracy from 30 meters was the day the Military no longer relied on it as their primary system. It is WAY to vulnerable.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 10:02 PM, gskinner75006 wrote:

    So now instead of people falling onto the subway rails while texting, they can do it while watching a map telling them where to walk.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 10:24 PM, Fight4Justice wrote:

    Lockheed should have anticipated the probability of a GPS hack by an enemy and installed a self destruct device that could be manually detonated when the drone failed to return to home base. It could also have been equipped with an automatic detonation upon landing that the US personnel must deactivate upon landing at home base, if not it would automatically self destruct. A second benefit would have been that the drone would have blown up in the face of it's Iranian hijackers.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 10:28 PM, Fight4Justice wrote:

    No matter what technologically advanced, top secret device is developed it is only a matter of time before another figures it out and copies it, develops defenses that neutralize it or both. This truism is a two way street.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 11:28 PM, CALNNC wrote:

    As a person who worked in the aviation industry prior to civilian use of GPS, the FAA had intended that by 2005, all domestic land base navigation systems would be shut down and everything based on GPS. VOR's, TACAN's, NDB's, ILS's would all be gone, the frequencies auctioned off for more FM band or cell phone use. Well, that didn't happen. The FAA is still contracting to install NDB's which operate in a part of the spectrum where radio originally started, in the 100's of KHZ range. ILS's are still in place and are still being commissioned due to the dismal failure of the Microwave Landing System (MLS). The DME part of TACAN is still in use by aircraft, but military use of TACAN has decreased. GPS has never been able to work properly for precision approaches in CAT II or III weather, only CAT I. For some reason, a missile can get real time updates on altitude, but a lumbering jet liner can not get a proper updating signal to give a smooth glide path like a UHF ground based Glide Slope signal gives them, and is made worse over water where the reflecting signal off the water nullifies the primary signal from the satellites. The best ground based NAV system before shutdown was LORAN C, the FAA toyed with updating this with more inland LORAN C transmitters, but bailed out when the hope of GPS came along. To me, looking at an indicator whose needle swung around and pointed to the spot I wanted to go because that is where the firmly planted on the ground signal was coming from, seems a comfort.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 11:41 PM, firedragon1964 wrote:

    A few weeks ago Putin upset by the US economic sanctions threaten to shutdown our access to their satellites on which some of our GPS systems depend on.Therefore, if we enter into a conflict with Russia, there is a chance our GPS systems could be compromised. Solution = Move Away from GPS.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 12:21 AM, Galane wrote:

    There are two American Global Positioning Satellite Systems and one land based.

    The main one is just GPS, the constellation of low orbiting satellites. The reason the selective availability encryption that limited non-military accuracy was turned off is because it became obsolete. It only takes a lock on three satellites to get a position in 2 dimensions. A lock on four allows for an altitude fix. Early GPS receivers only locked on 3 or 4.

    To improve accuracy, civilian units were developed to get a lock on up to twelve satellites and the hardware and software were made to do a bunch of fancy math to compare all the signals to fix the location from the degraded signals as good as a military unit with a four satellite lock with clean signals.

    But most civilian units are too slow to work at speeds many light aircraft can reach, so don't try your Garmin Nuvi in your Cessna.

    The other satellite system is Wide Area Augmentation System or WAAS. These satellites are in geosynchronous orbit so their signal frequency never varies relative to the receiver due to Doppler shift (which is one of the things that makes regular GPS work). WAAS was launched after selective availability was turned off.

    The land based system provides a second fixed reference signal. Nationwide Differential GPS System (NDGPS or just Differential GPS) is a system of multiple, precisely located transmitters on land. It started out on the coasts and major inland waterways but has been expanded to cover nearly all the USA. The current map has a curiously large uncovered area consisting of most of southeast Idaho and the edges of surrounding States, and no coverage of the Texas-Mexico border. So if you're a student at Idaho State University, no NDGPS for you!

    A receiver that combines all three systems can be very accurate.

    There are other systems developed by other countries. Russia has GLONASS, which they've been working on since the Soviet era. In its earliest version a receiver could take hours to obtain a fix, so it was useless for ships, aircraft or anything else moving.

    France has DORIS, but it transmits from fixed ground stations to the satellites to determine their location. From that information, the location of other things on Earth can be determined. It's primarily a surveying, not a navigation system.

    China has a regional system called Beidou but has plans to expand it to global coverage by 2020.

    The EU and ESA announced their Galileo system in 2002 with plans to have it fully operational in 2010, 2014 and now 2020... maybe, at a much higher cost than initially planned.

    The Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) will use 7 geostationary satellites to provide better than 7.6 meter accuracy in all of India and a 1,500 KM region around it.

    Japan's QZSS augmentation for GPS plans to have three satellites, the first was launched in 2010.

    I'd expect DARPA or someone involved with military equipment to be working on a GPS receiver capable of working with several of these at the same time.

    There already are civilian units capable of receiving both GPS and GLONASS. I don't know if they work with both at the same time, but if you want one in the USA you'll have to import it, then somehow get North American map data onto it.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 12:50 AM, spinod wrote:

    Doesn't Googles GPS already do this? You can lose signal and it keeps going. The only time it doesn't is if you travel off course or go too far, but not by simply going into a parking garage.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 1:50 AM, DevonShire123 wrote:

    And once they're implanted via Obamacare mandate into every person, Americans can be easily targeted and eliminated by drones. Per United nations Agenda 21.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 1:51 AM, tarchon wrote:

    "MEMS now checks location against 3 reference systems at a rate of 2400 CPS (Cycles Per Second) those 3 systems being Inertial gyroscopic, GPS and Map of the Earth."

    Yeah, it works great if you can reset the position estimate... 2400 times per second. To me, that sounds kind of like having a solar flashlight. I understand the utility of redundancy, but inertial navigation isn't replacing GPS there, what's replacing GPS is the hyper accurate terrain map.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 2:13 AM, tarchon wrote:

    But anyway, I'm not saying that inertial navigation isn't useful for something, but this article is stating that it could "replace GPS," and that's a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Yeah, inertial navigation PLUS something else could potentially replace GPS, but what this article is saying is that you can do it with JUST inertial navigation, and that's just not gonna happen.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 7:37 AM, blobsquad wrote:

    All this money and technology and it wasn't built with a way to make it self destruct if it ever fell into the wrong hands? Also, as soon as they took it over and landed it, why didn't the US strike and destroy it? Instead, the US taxpayers are required to pay billions of dollars to develop this technology and then our infamous leaders make decisions that deliver it into the hands of our adversaries for free - what a deal for them. The US could have at least put it on Ebay so the taxpayers could have got some money back on it - with the buyer responsible for shipping costs.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 7:29 PM, agsb wrote:

    I read that the use of maps on your smartphone is easier to be regulated by the government

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 7:43 PM, jross31 wrote:

    The Iranians did not bring down the RQ170. The engine failed. It landed wheels up and destroyed everything beneath the wing leading edge. You will notice all picture they release has the UAV shielded by something up to the leading edge. Everything below that is a wreck. Their "Copy" is cosmetic only.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 7:48 PM, halseyjr wrote:

    I am amused and very interested not only with the subject of this piece but the comments that follow.

    There are many credible and intelligent comments that were interesting and informative to me.

    The primary reason the DoD is looking at this technology is the known fact that the US military is highly dependent on satellite systems for C4 operations and adversaries have demonstrated the ability to render American satellites inoperable in the event of military confrontation.

    While the development of a navigation system completely independent of 'outside' data such as the GPS constellation may be near impossible, the need is required.

    There is possibility that this idea will work but with the assistance of TXed information from fixed terrestrial points to reference data processed by MEMS.

    All tracking and navigation systems as well as surveillance must employ referencing and MEMS may work if occasional reference data is supplied to the system.

    The US must concentrate on either migrating from 'open' networks such as GPS and the internet or solidifying security using these sources as these networks are increasingly becoming vulnerable to enemy attack and their ability to disable or corrupt sensitive data streams.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 9:43 PM, metazip wrote:

    Sounds they already have it installed in everything we have for the NSA to track us. There goes another freedom...

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 10:40 PM, frellmedead wrote:

    Of course, the war profiteer that made the drones was too cheap to put in a mechanism that would be activated to destroy the drone when/if it fell into enemy hands.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2014, at 11:15 PM, MateØ wrote:

    The uses of this technology certainly are interesting. Ultra smart munitions, and the ability for it to know its exact position in space. It's also quite curious to see drones added to the list of weapons this technology will be used for. Perhaps the United States has finally come to its senses in providing adequate counter measures against unfriendly forces jamming its signal. Even though unmanned, they still are quite valuable, especially for other nations seeking to equip themselves with the technology.

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