As we become more dependent on GPS, power outages seem more and more likely.
About half a century ago, the U.S. Department of Defense began an experimental program to launch a series of satellites into space to help locate any location on Earth.
Forty-seven years later, the Global Positioning System (GPS) is everywhere and ubiquitous, from activity-tracking apps on smartphones to aircraft navigation systems.
Before receiving the £1 million Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering last week, GPS chief architect Bradford Parkinson told ZDNet that making the tool available to everyone as soon as possible is part of his plan. The first phase of the project.
This was also part of the U.S. government's plan: in 1983, the Reagan administration announced that it would indeed guarantee and provide GPS for military and civilian use.
"President Reagan determined that the government should provide reliable location information, just like beacons on ships or navigational lights on airplanes," Parkinson said. "Here we are: the whole world now takes GPS for granted."
At the time, Reagan could not have predicted that engineers would develop cheap chips complex enough to power the world's more than 5 billion smartphones, all of which are equipped with GPS, and fuel a global reliance on technology.
Now Parkinson argues that the technology must be protected from its biggest threat: interference.
Interference occurs when a third party broadcasts too much noise while sending data at the same frequency used by the satellite to a ground receiver, which in turn calculates their position by determining their distance from the satellite.
By sending radio signals on these frequencies or close to the frequencies used by the technology, the jamming effectively stops GPS navigation.
"We have to protect these frequencies," Parkinson said. "Billions of people around the world depend on them - I don't think a lot of people would be very good at reading maps if their GPS went down."
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is well aware of the problem. He took steps to penalize the use of GPS jammers, small devices that send radio signals at the same frequency as GPS to replace or distort satellite signals.
"The most serious threat," Parkinson said, "is when your national authorities allow ground transmitters to operate with GPS frequencies." I've been struggling with this problem for nine years.
"The FCC can allow frequencies to be so close that it degrades GPS performance. No one believed me, but they were so close. To allow this would be to deliberately license interference and legitimize it."
However, GPS signal failure has a lot to lose, and not just for consumers who use Google Maps for their morning commute. For example, the UK Space Agency estimates that a five-day GPS outage could cost the UK economy more than £5 billion ($6.5 billion).
In Southern California, the technique is being used to study the movement of tectonic plates and assess the likelihood of earthquakes. GPS is used in precision agriculture to map fields and increase productivity while better allocating fertilizer use. Of course, emergency services and firefighters are also increasingly relying on GPS navigation tools.
In other words, protecting GPS frequencies in the modern world is critical. To that end, the U.S. Department of Transportation last year released an assessment report on "GPS Adjacent Band Compatibility," analyzing frequencies adjacent to the GPS spectrum and whether they should be used for commercial purposes.
For the future, however, Parkinson is far from optimistic. One innovation he has in mind is GPS-controlled anti drone jammers.
From the disruption of flights for 100,000 passengers at Gatwick Airport last year to the grounding of 14 firefighting aircraft during the Maria fires in California last month, the ability of drones to wreak havoc has never been demonstrated again.
With Amazon now planning to deploy a fleet of drones to deliver packages directly to our doorsteps, it's likely that sooner or later more devices will be seen flying.
In Parkinson's words, it's easy to see why the prospect of jamming GPS signals when drones are near airports or emergency services "is not a good idea."
For him, the solution was simple. "Require companies to respect the licenses they have," he said. "If you really like them, find them another band. But don't interfere with the GPS band."