The future of GPS could be on the ground rather than in space

You know when you’re using an app that uses GPS in a major city, and it can’t quite pin point your location? Well, a new tech company in San Francisco may have a new way of fixing that. As you can imagine it would require a heft amount of hardware, but not necessarily in space. To learn about it, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  had the chance to speak with Ganesh Pattabiraman. He’s the CEO of the company NextNav.

Interview transcript:

Ganesh Pattabiraman
So we are what we call a next generation provider of GPS, like services or geolocation services. So essentially, we provide resilient, 3D position navigation and timing services, that could be essentially used to complement, in certain cases, the GPS capabilities. And in other cases, also provide that fundamental position navigation timing, capers, services, that GPS provides in places where GPS does not work, such as indoor and urban areas. So, however, we are a terrestrial system, we’re not a space based system. And our goal is really to be the resilient PNT or Position Navigation Timing provider, that complements GPS.

Eric White
Got you. And so, like I said, a lot of the folks that I speak to our GPS space related. What is, I guess, the difference between being nonspace GPS and on the terrestrial side?

Ganesh Pattabiraman
Yeah, I think the big differences, each system has its own, sort of, trade offs. Our big difference with GPS, is that we are a resilient system that is much stronger than GPS. We’re about 100,000 times stronger than GPS signal. And we have a new encryption system that’s in place, that at least the civilian GPS does not have. But unlike GPS, which is worldwide, we are localized to, countries or regions in a country, or cities, etc. And so it has the geographical constraint, but it is, as, as we’ve seen, it gives countries and entities the ability to control and manage the PNP services within their borders, while GPS is a far more global type of capability.

Eric White
Yeah, so I imagine it’s more centralized, almost containerized, which is a big thing that the government is pushing for lately. And so in doing that, it’s harder to lose control of it or have any outside entities try and hack into it or interfere with it, so to speak.

Ganesh Pattabiraman
That is correct. So because it is, the infrastructure would be within the borders of your country or city or what have you. You have the ability to manage and run the system and you are far less vulnerable to a GPS or space based system, such as GPS. Fundamentally, because that signal is just the power of a 30 watt light bulb. And we are in the much stronger than that and terrestrial and therefore, it’s much harder to spoof and jam from that perspective.

Eric White
So, yeah, GPS, obviously, utilizes satellites, what kind of technical hardware are you all working with?

Ganesh Pattabiraman
So, actually, it turns out, our system really is very much like GPS in that sense. Because we do think GPS, the signal and the waveform that was developed is really good. However, so, fundamentally, think of us as putting GPS satellites on the ground. We are transmitters our broadcast beacons. So very much like GPS, which is a broadcast system. We transmit a GPS like waveform, which is the same shipping rate as the GPS signal. And we have the same atomic clocks built into our transmitters. So that allows us to, essentially precisely, time our signals, much like GPS. So it’s actually the same type of atomic clock that the GPS satellites have. The difference really is, our satellites are stationary, they’re not flying. They’re on the ground. So our almanac is fixed. And then, we do have other capabilities built into the system such things like, we’re able to transfer time between our transmitters. So create a mesh like capability, that allows us to operate, independent of GPS, throughout the network for an extensive period, while maintaining synchronization with something like U.S. Naval Observatory, or [National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)] atomic clock. And therefore we can provide, sort of that, resilient anchor tied to the fundamental clocks that we maintain in the country.

Eric White
Got it. And one of your network of beacons is the terror point beacons, which is what NASA will be utilizing. And that’s what caught my eye and got me to want to talk to you. Can you tell me a little bit about that project? aAs much as you’re allowed to, and how it came to be?

Ganesh Pattabiraman
Yeah, sure, absolutely. So we’ve been working with NASA for an extended period of time. They, actually, first procured our system over at NASA Langley way back in 2018. And NASA, of course, was establishing the framework for [Urban Air Mobility (UAM)] or drone operations in the country. And they recognize the need for, not just a system that is, available in places where GPS isn’t available for drone operations, which could be downtown San Francisco, for instance. GPS is not as available or an indoor environment. But also something that is complimentary and provides a resiliency capability, because you do have these aircrafts or vehicles flying at very high speeds over urban population centers. And knowing the vulnerabilities of GPS, that signal may not be available all the time. So they felt that the importance or need for a complimentary signal, that can come in place when GPS is not available. And so they acquired a system that they deployed at NASA Langley in 2018, they’ve been flying drones with that at that facility for some period of time. And understanding how that works and how that solution scales. I think, the NASA Ames folks had a similar ambition, more geared towards, maybe commercial entities, that may want to leverage the same capability. And they decided to aquire some receivers to utilize the system’s capability in the Bay Area. What’s exciting about that, for us here in the Bay Area is, at Langley, they had a dedicated system for their flight operations. In San Francisco, they’re, actually, utilizing our commercial network that we’ve deployed around the entire Bay Area, which covers about 900 square miles. And they will be flying drones to capture data for drone navigation detection collision avoidance types of use cases. In addition, to leveraging it for beyond visual line of sight capabilities, where the person piloting the drone, may not be able to see the drone, but needs to understand its precise location at all times.

Eric White
Gotcha. And let me do my part here, which is to try to break it down a little bit. They’re flying drones out around the San Francisco, Bay Area. They’re not in that area. They want to be able to know where they are. And they’re utilizing your network of towers and other equipment to keep track of them.

Ganesh Pattabiraman
That is correct.

Eric White
Great. And you’re specially formatted for this. I’m just curious why were the TerraPoiNT network? Why was that created in the first place? Was that just to test out the capabilities of your GPS signals? Or was there some other project in mind?

Ganesh Pattabiraman
Yeah, we started the company nearly a decade ago with the mission of, knowing that how powerful GPS is and how much of utility it is, in all aspects of our lives. We recognize that there are limitations for that system, especially, in the urban areas where we live, work and play, where PNT has its highest needs. And so the idea was, to create a complementary system that really overcome some of the limitations of GPS, but, essentially, provides PNT services for a whole host of applications. So we, actually, have a first phase of that system deployed, nationwide today, covering about 4,400 cities. And that provides altitude with GPS based X, Y. And we, actually, provide that for mobile phone users, both, for AT&T, FirstNet, has selected us to provide that capability for first responders and providing situational awareness for them. It’s being utilized for 911 emergency calling. When you dial 911, your location needs to be determined. So we built as part of that initial framework, a full TerraPoiNT system here in the Bay Area, for some of these demonstrations and trials that have been used by public safety. They’ve been used for, automotive and drone types of applications. We’re working with a number of, EB tall providers who want to leverage the system for, again, providing that resilient PNT capability in the urbanized areas, where GPS was most challenged. So that was kind of the intent. And we’ve been doing this for about a decade plus. And quite successfully. And and we do have now, that network that provides that altitude capabilities. And we’ll be rolling out the TerraPoiNT system on a similar footing, in the near future at some of these applications come to fruition.

Eric White
Yeah, because there’s nothing more annoying than when you’re in the city and your phone doesn’t know which direction you’re going.

Ganesh Pattabiraman
That’s right. I think we’ve all experienced it. You try and ask for Uber and it shows up two streets away, because your in downtown New York or San Francisco. But what if you could actually have a system that could, precisely, pinpoint your location? Not just in two dimensions, but in three dimensions. I could tell you that the person is on the third floor of a building and is having a heart attack, then you can dispatch emergency responders to that particular situation, pretty quickly.

Eric White
Yeah, I was gonna say obviously, the stakes are a little bit higher when you’re talking about first responders, other than me just trying to get home from a night out. So understood. Anything else that we haven’t touched on, that you think would be important for the conversation?

Ganesh Pattabiraman
Well, a couple of other things I, probably, want to highlight is one, the technology has been standardized in [3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP)], which is the global telecommunication standards setting group, that sets like the 4g, 5g, 6g standard. So this is being recognized by that standards body. Very similar to GPS, actually, they have a lot of space based systems that they have recognized GPS, Galileo, etc, as as a space base to position navigation timing sources. But we were the first ones to be recognized, as a terrestrial position navigation timing source, in as part of that international standards body. And then the second piece, I would say is because of that global standardization, we do see a lot of international activities. And so we do have a deployment out in Japan, where they’re using our system for similar operation for not just providing altitude capabilities. But there’s interest by the Japanese government, also for sort of a resilient PNT system, as they think about complementing GPS with other types of capabilities.

 

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