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Blackouts could see ships sailing blind

Tuesday, May 13 16:23:43

Europe has yet to fully wake up to the danger of maritime disasters caused by signal jamming and blackouts of satellite navigation devices, say the proponents of a back up system on trial in British and Dutch ports.

Ships increasingly rely on systems that employ satellite signals to find a location or keep exact time including the Global Positioning System (GPS) and GLONASS.

But experts say such systems are vulnerable to signal loss from solar weather effects or radio and satellite interference and can also be affected by intentional jamming by criminal gangs, nation states or potentially from militant groups.

The General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland (GLA) is pioneering a radio-based back-up prototype called eLoran.

While the GLA has been working with Russia and South Korea on eLoran tie ups in recent months, it still faces a hard sell in many parts of Europe.

"Europe still doesn't centrally recognise GNSS (global navigation satellite system) vulnerability," Martin Bransby of the GLA said.

A European Commission spokeswoman said it recognised that devices like Europe's Galileo as well as GPS and GLONASS "will not be immune to radio-frequency interference".

"The Commission is working with member states to support actions and projects at the national, European and global level to reduce the potential impacts from these devices," she said.

The GLA said it was crucial for France to continue to maintain and upgrade older radio transmitter stations called Loran-C, which date back decades, for eLoran to gain momentum.

A French Transport Ministry spokeswoman said it was studying the matter and would make a decision shortly.

In a setback, Norway said it would terminate the operation of Loran-C stations by the end of 2015 partly due to a lack of users there. Backers of eLoran say the lack of stations in Norway will create gaps in signal coverage.

Jon Georg Dale, State Secretary with Norway's Ministry of Transport and Communications, said its Space Centre concluded in a report that "a long duration loss of satellite signals is not very likely to happen, and sporadic losses of satellite signals would have relatively small consequences for maritime users".

Dale said the view was shared by Norway's coastal administration.

"The GPS system has so far proved reliable, and the introduction of the Russian GLONASS, the European Galileo and the Chinese Beidou satellite navigation systems will further reduce the GNSS vulnerability," Dale told Reuters. (Reuters)