Next-gen smart devices require investment in location infrastructure

May 24, 2021

"We need location services that can actually function in densely populated cities."

NextNav's Ganesh Pattabiraman

Infrastructure is a key priority on Capitol Hill, with a national discussion about priorities well underway. The foundations of smart industries and smart-city technology hang in the balance of this debate, especially when it comes to the cybersecurity and connectivity systems that power every initiative. In particular, the future of GPS—a key component of the digital infrastructure smart cities rely on—will be defined by this debate. 

We are so reliant on location technology that we often forget its true significance. GPS powers everything from Google Maps to air traffic control, from electrical grids to financial transactions, delivering massive benefits to the economy (estimated at $1.4T since its inception). At the same time, location technology’s vulnerability to disruption is a national security risk, and it is increasingly unable to serve the complex needs of tomorrow’s smart cities. 

Meeting our future location needs means investing in a resilient backup to GPS while extending its functionality. Let’s explore…

Securing the systems of tomorrow

Even with the massive digital transformation happening across industries, without adequate foundational infrastructure we’re never going to reach the full potential of smart devices. Specifically, as we consider advancements in manufacturing and the building blocks of smart cities/smart grids for utilities, we need more advanced security.

Consumers often associate GPS with turn-by-turn navigation or delivery apps, but it is also essential in the telecommunication, autonomous transportation, and electrical industries; critical infrastructure that requires strong security. Unfortunately, GPS signals are notoriously weak, enabling malicious actors to jam and spoof unencrypted traffic. 

These threats to GPS aren’t merely theoretical. GPS spoofing, once a capability confined to foreign militaries, is now routinely performed by teenagers playing Pokémon Go. In the past five years alone, thousands of incidents of malicious interference in GPS have been linked to foreign adversaries, which presents a serious threat to homeland security.  Studies estimate that a single 24-hour GPS outage would cost the United States $1 billion in economic activity. 

Manufacturing relies on location services for just-in-time delivery, logistics, industrial safety and more. Delays caused by security breaches threaten critical supply chains.  

Expanding location capabilities

The development of smart cities is currently hindered by the technological limitations of GPS, which doesn’t work well in urban areas—weak signals can’t penetrate buildings or operate in urban canyons. Enabling the next generation of autonomous vehicles, drones, urban-air mobility and other services requires greater reliability, greater availability and higher accuracy. Unless we want to relegate smart industries and smart cities to sprawling open areas, we need location services that can actually function in densely populated cities.  

In addition to poor accuracy in urban areas, GPS doesn’t deliver accurate, reliable service in the vertical dimension. In cities defined by large, multi-level structures, vertical location is a necessity for safety and efficiency. The factories, warehouses, and cities of the future need a location-services solution that works along the z-axis and is compatible with existing GPS infrastructure. Until we build an alternative, GPS limits us to a two-dimensional world.  

Tomorrow’s smart cities need a complete 3D solution.

Investing in a backup 

Many still see infrastructure only as roads, bridges and waterways. Yet our digitized, technologically advanced world demands a broader definition. With the growth and development of smart cities, autonomous vehicles and drones, our cities and the safety of those within them depend upon strong digital infrastructure in addition to the physical assets. 

At the start of this year, the Department of Transportation (DOT) placed added emphasis on the importance of GPS alternatives in our digitized world, with a report demonstrating government attention and prioritization to the subject. The report positions resilient Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) solutions as an essential element of critical infrastructure, and provides a detailed roadmap for investment. 

Following the DOT report, the location-services industry penned a letter to Congress calling for action, noting that a lasting solution will require multiple technology layers. The bottom line? Lawmakers need to prioritize a nationwide GPS backup if they want to make smart cities and industries a reality. 

Resilience & reach

In order to reach full potential and drive the next iteration of smart cities, we need to improve the resilience, reach and accuracy of location technology by supplementing the capabilities of GPS. 

If GPS alternatives aren’t included in the national discussion on infrastructure and smart cities, we’re doing ourselves a disservice, slowing down major technological advancements that could mean improved efficiency. If they are included, we have the opportunity to build and develop more financially secure and environmentally safe environments for all.  

Ganesh Pattabiraman is CEO of NextNav