Is there a viable alternative to ubiquitous GPS?

DARPA puts call out to find out what technologies could offer GPS alternatives

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One of DARPA's chip-scale inertial navigation and precision guidance technologies in development.

Credit: DARPA

What’s the state-of-the-art in non-GPS based navigation and homing technology? That’s the main question behind a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) request to the industry this week as the group ponders where or not to go forward with a program that would seek an alternative to or a technology capable of augmenting GPS.

“As revolutionary as GPS has been, however, it has its limitations. GPS signals cannot be received underground or underwater and can be significantly degraded or unavailable during solar storms. More worrisome is that adversaries can jam signals. GPS continues to be vital, but its limitations in some environments could make it an Achilles’ heel...” DARPA stated earlier this year.

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 To overcome these shortcomings and provide the needed improvement in GPS-free precision navigation and homing, DARPA says it is contemplating the research and development of cross-modality external-feature-based navigation as sensor inputs to guidance and control systems. “Some of the sensor modalities that may be used could include technologies like electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) and radio frequency (RF) imaging (active or passive imaging), active/semi- active/passive guidance by EO/IR and/or RF signals, and tracking by exploitation of signals of opportunity.”

 DARPA said that any new technologies would need to have navigation and homing precision at least as good as GPS and would come in a small package that would largely be automated or require little human intervention.

DARPA has lots of questions and requirements of any new system. Here is an edited review what the agency wants to know:

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  1. What sensing modalities and sensors could enable highly precise GPS-free homing? What sensing modalities would support homing on moving targets? What sensing modalities should be used for the various environmental conditions (day, night, degraded visual environment, bad weather, and camouflage/concealment/deception)? Which image/video/signal sensor data and features should be used for GPS-free navigation and homing? What current INS/IMU technology would be most suitable in a GPS-free precision homing system?

  2. What role would automatic target recognition (ATR) technology play in precise GPS-free homing? Would the ATR be model-based? If so, what models would be needed?

  3. What are the appropriate cross-modality image/signal processing performance levels necessary, as a function of the desired navigation/homing precision and accuracy? How are they quantified? How would diverse sensing modalities be fused or combined to improve the precision and accuracy of GPS-free homing? What performance (specifications) is needed for each sensing modality to support sensor fusion leading to improved GPS-free homing precision or accuracy?

  4. How would the handoff from one sensing modality to another, or one phase of flight to another (navigation to terminal to homing), be addressed?

  5. What is your recommendation for non-GPS external-feature-based precision navigation architecture and technology? What are the principal technical risks of the development of this architecture?

  6. What data from other sources or databases (not organic to the platform being navigated) would be needed to support this architecture? What data latency or data synchronization requirements need to be supported in this architecture?

  7. Are there real/virtual 3D digital elevation models or databases that should be used by the GPS-free precision navigation/homing system? What navigation/homing precision can be attained, as a function of the precision or accuracy of the 3D database?

  8. How much of the navigation and pre-launch mission planning for this architecture can be automated? How rapidly can the planning be done? What interface structure and command-and- control process will allow maximum performance efficiencies of the external-feature-based system to achieve maximum precision or accuracy in navigation, terminal guidance and homing?

  9. What supporting tools or technologies are required to develop such a non-GPS precision navigation & homing system into a small system with low recurring cost?

  10. What guidance and control technologies could best exploit a GPS-free navigation/homing system to achieve guidance precision and accuracy commensurate with the navigation/homing precision and accuracy?

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