Let me begin with a quote worth repeating — “Do we really need to wait for a catastrophe before taking action against GNSS vulnerabilities ?” — and follow with an extension of scope beyond.

It’s encouraging to see LinkedIn discussions recognizing ADSB limitations that preclude dependable collision avoidance capability – but that recognition needs to be far more widespread. The limitations are both severe and multifaceted including, in addition to vulnerability from inadequate security,
* accuracy goals based on present position instead of the monumentally more important relative velocity — ADSB allows 10 meter/sec velocity error (!), without characterization as vectorial or relative or probabilistic.
* the glaring but near-universal flaw of sharing coordinates, thereby failing to exploit what made differential operation spectacularly successful: work with individual measurements separately.
Note that these deficiencies existed long before the emergence of unmanned vehicles. The need to correct them is as fundamental as it is urgent. I’ve communicated these concerns over and over, most recently receiving a gratifying response from my June 11 presentation to the satnav National Advisory Board, with details available from URLs at the end.
In that presentation I cited a successful flight validation achieving accuracy on the order of cm/sec, for the crucially important relative velocity between vehicles that can be on or near a collision course. That is a thousand times less error than the 10 meter/sec allowed by ADSB. Furthermore, reduction by a thousand in each of three directions translates into a billion times less volume of uncertainty — or, in just two dimensions at fixed altitude, a million times less area. To realize this crucial safety improvement no new discoveries are needed and no new equipment needs to be invented; only the content of transmitted data needs to change: measurements rather than coordinates. Yet usage of the method is not being planned. After initially proposed before 2000, a limited support program started within the past few years is the only step taken toward this direction.

No claim is made that the last word has been spoken or that introduction of the needed modifications — nor accompanying regulation — would be trivial.  The intent here is not criticism and complaints for the sake of criticism and complaints.  Emphasizing unwelcome reality always caries risk of drawing wrath.  Nevertheless, especially now with growing usage of unmanned vehicles, sounding an alarm is better than passively waiting for a calamity. So here’s an alarm: Inadequate preparation for collision avoidance is a microcosm of a much wider overall flaw in today’s decision-making process. For years substantial numbers of qualified people have spent extensive effort trying to prevent cataclysmic failures in one area or another involving PNT (position/navigation/timing).  They definitely deserve attention and action.

Anything approaching a thorough compilation of worthy advocacy would require considerable length; just a few recent examples are cited here.  Explanations tracing inaction to current shortcomings can logically include a diagnosis of dissatisfaction expressed at a pinnacle of authority within DoD. An even more current offering is only the latest expression of regret over insufficient support for satnav, describing a highly relevant chain of inaction over a multiyear period. Near the beginning of that period, a cover story for Coordinates magazine repeated a quote from the previous month’s cover story   The quote worth repeating, cited at the start of this, is a perfect expression of the frustration prevalent over a decade following the universally acclaimed 2001 Volpe report. Now, almost a decade-and-a-half after that report, partial progress toward a solution coexists with minimal progress toward collision avoidance — while unmanned vehicles are already threatening passenger flight safety. Now to extend the quote: “Do we really need to wait for a catastrophe before making better use of measurements — GNSS or otherwise — to prevent collisions in the presence of increased manned and unmanned traffic?”

Surveillance with GPS/GNSS



The ago-old Interrogation/Response method for air surveillance was aptly summarized in an important 1996 GPSWorld article by Garth van Sickle: Response from an unidentified IFF transponder is useful only to the interrogator that triggered it.  That author, who served as Arabian Gulf Battle Force operations officer during Desert Storm, described transponders flooding the air with signals.  Hundreds of interrogations per minute in that crowded environment produced a glut of r-f energy – but still no adequate friendly air assessment.


The first step toward solving that problem is a no-brainer: Allocate a brief transmit duration to every participant, each separate from all others.  Replace the Interrogation/Response approach with spontaneous transmissions.  Immediately, then, one user’s information is no longer everyone else’s interference; quite the opposite: each participant can receive every other participant’s transmissions.  In the limit (with no interrogations at all), literally hundreds of participants could be accommodated.  Garble nonexistent.   Bingo.


Sometimes there a catch to an improvement that dramatic.  Fortunately that isn’t true of this one.  A successful demo was performed at Logan Airport – using existing transponders with accepted data formatting (extended squitter), in the early 1990s, by Lincoln Labs.  I then (first in January 1998) made two presentations, one for military operation (publication #60- click here) and another one for commercial aviation (publication #61-click here), advocating adoption of that method with one important change.  Transmitting GPS pseudoranges rather than coordinates would enable an enormous increase in performance.  Reasons include cancellation of major errors – which happens when two users subtract scalar measurements from the same satellite, but not coordinates formed from different sets of satellites.   That, however, only begins to describe the benefit of using measurements (publication #66); continue below:


With each participant receiving every other participant’s transmissions, each has the ability to track all others.  That is easily done because
(1) every extended squitter message includes unique source identification, and (2) multiple trackers maintained in tandem have been feasible for years; hundredsof tracks would not tax today’s computing capability at all. Tracks can be formed by ad hoc stitching together coordinate differences, but accuracy will not be impressive.  A Kalman tracker fed by those coordinate differences would not only contain the uncancelled errors just noted, but nonuniform sensitivities, unequal accuracies, and cross-axis correlations among the coordinate pseudomeasurement errors would not be taken into account.  Furthermore, the dynamics (velocity and acceleration) – as derivatives – would degrade even more – and dynamic accuracy is absolutely crucial for ability to anticipate near-future position (e.g., for collision avoidance).


The sheer weight of all the considerations just noted should be more than enough to motivate the industry towards preparing to exploit this capability.  But, wait – there’s more.  Much more, in fact.  For how many years have we been talking about consolidating various systems, so that we wouldn’t need so many different ones?  Well, here’s a chance to provide both 2-dimensional (runway incursion) and 3-dimensional (in-air) collision avoidance with the same system.  The performance benefits alone are substantial but that plan would also overcome a fundamental limitation for each –
* Ground: ASDE won’t be available at smaller airports
* In-air: TCAS doesn’t provide adequate bearing information; conflict resolution is performed with climb/dive.
The latter item doesn’t make passengers happy, especially since that absence of timely and accurate azimuth information prompts some unnecessary “just-in-case” maneuvers.


No criticism is aimed here toward the designers of TCAS; they made use of what was available to them, pre-GPS.  Today we have not just GPS but differential GPS.  Double differencing, which revolutionized surveying two decades ago, could do the same for this 2-D and 3-D tracking.  The only difference would be absence of any requirement for a stationary reference.  All positions and velocities are relative – exactly what the doctor ordered for this application.


OK, I promised – not just more but MUCH more.  Now consider what happens when there aren’t enough satellites instantaneously available to provide a full position fix meeting all demands (geometry, integrity validation): Partial data that cannot provide instantaneous position to be transmitted is wasted (no place to go).  But ancient mariners used partial information centuries ago.  If we’re willing to do that ourselves, I’ve shown a rigorously derived but easily used means to validate each separate measurement according to individual circumstances.  A specific satellite might give an acceptable measurement to one user but a multipath-degraded measurement to another.  At each instant of time, any user could choose to reject some data without being forced to reject it all.  My methods are applicable for any frequency from any constellation (GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO, COMPASS, QZSS, … ).


While we’re at it, once we open our minds to sharing and comparing scalar observations, we can go beyond satellite data and include whatever our sensors provide.  Since for a half-century we’ve known how to account for all the nonuniform sensitivities, unequal accuracies, and cross-axis correlations previously mentioned, all incoming data common to multiple participants (TOA, DME, etc.) would be welcome.


So we can derive accurate cross-range as well as along-range relative dynamics as well as position, with altitude significantly improved to boot.  Many scenarios (those with appreciable crossing geometry) will allow conflict resolution in a horizontal plane via deceleration – well ahead of time rather than requiring a sudden maneuver.  GPS and Mode-S require no breakthrough in inventions, and track algorithms already in public domain carry no proprietary claims.  Obviously, all this aircraft-to-aircraft tracking (with participants in air or on the ground) can be accomplished without data transmitted from any ground station.  All these benefits can be had just by using Mode-S squitter messages with the right content.


There’s still more.  Suppose one participant uses a different datum than the others.  Admittedly that’s unlikely but, for prevention of a calamity, we need to err on the side of caution; “unlikely” isn’t good enough.  With each participant operating in his own world-view, comparing scalar measurements would be safe in any coordinate reference.  Comparing vectors with an unknown mismatch in the reference frame, though, would be a prescription for disaster.  Finally, in Chapter 9 of GNSS Aided Navigation & Tracking I extend the approach to enable sharing observations of nonparticipants.


In the About panel of this site I pledged to substantiate a claim of dramatic improvements afforded by methods to be presented.  This operation is submitted as one example satisfying that claim.  Many would agree (and many have agreed) that the combined reasons given for the above plan is compelling.  Despite that, there is no commitment by the industry to pursue it.  ADSB is moving inexorably in a direction that was set years ago.  That’s a reality – but it isn’t the only reality.  The world has its own model; it doesn’t depend on how we characterize it.  It’s up to us to pattern our plans in conformance to the real world, not the other way around.  Given the stakes I feel compelled to advocate moving forward with a pilot program of modest size – call it “Post-Nextgen” – having the robustness to recover from severe adversity.  Let’s get prepared.

Avionics Commonality

A LinkedIn discussion centered on the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) standard contained an important observation concerning certification.  Granted — requirements for validation, with acceptance by governing agencies, definitely are essential for safety. What follows here is advocacy for a proposed way to realize the common avionics benefits offered by FACE while retaining (and in fact, improving) the process of certification. Reasoning is based on three major items:

* CHANGE. In many respects this has necessitated improved standards. 

* HISTORY. Spectacular failures in what we have now are widely documented.

* COST. The status quo is (and, for a long time, has been) unaffordable.

In regard to the first item: the pace of change in so many areas (hardware, software, operating systems, data communication, etc., etc., etc.) — and the effects on procurement cycles — are well known. How can certification remain unchanged when nothing else does? That argument would be undercut if the process had a rock solid track record — but that theme would not be supported by the second item — history:

Myriad shortcomings of existing operational systems are so pervasive that no one is considered a “loose cannon” for openly discussing them. Any of my horror stories — too strange and too numerous to be revisited here — would be trumped anyway by a document from the government itself. GAO-08-467SP, in 2008, described outlandish cost overruns, schedule delays, and deficient technical performance in the defense industry. That 3-way combination speaks for itself. Now a significant addition: the certification process has not been at all immune to serious flaws. The first-ever certified GPS receiver is now well known to have failed spectacularly in multiple facets of integrity testing by another manufacturer. It is readily acknowledged that correction of those early problems is quite credible, but one issue is inescapable: Historical proof of flightworthiness improperly bestowed — with proprietary rights accepted for algorithms and tests –- happened,  and that was not widely known until much later.

There is still more, including integrity failure probability limits missed by orders-of-magnitude in certified GPS receivers, severe limitations of GO/NO-GO testing, and failed attempts to gain approval to set requirements for correcting those plus other deficiencies. For brevity here, those issues are covered by citing the fifth page from another related reference.

The final item is, after years of fruitless talk about cost reduction, being acknowledged — we can’t do what we’ve been doing any more.  With dollars being the ultimate driver of so many decisions, we might finally see the necessary break from ingrained habits. FACE already addresses the issues and the requisite justifications. To make it all happen, two essential ingredients are

* raw-data-across-the-board, and

* nonproprietary software, with standardization under government control.
Flight-validated algorithms already in existence can be converted (e.g., from proof-of-concept to in-flight real-time form) according to government specification, by small groups more interested in engineering than in dollars (yes, that does exist). The payoff in cost savings can be huge.

Significant momentum is evolving toward a role for Open System Architecture (OSA) applied to radar. My observations in connection with that, voiced in a short LinkedIn discussion, seem worth repeating here.

One step could add major impact to this development: Rather than position (or relative position) outputs, provide measured range, azimuth, elevation (doppler could optionally be added if applicable) on the output interface. That simple step would vastly improve effectiveness of track file maintenance. Before attempting to describe all reasons for improved performance, two obvious benefits can be identified first:
* ability to use partial information (e.g., range-only or, for passive operation, angle-only)
* proper weighting of data for updating track state estimates.
The first item is self-evident. The second arises from common-sense attachment of greater value to the most accurate information. An explanation:

One-sigma error ellipsoids for individual radar fixes are not spherical (not a beachball shape but more like a flattened beachball), even at close range. At longer distances the shape progresses from a frisbee to a pancake to a DVD. Kalman filtering has enabled us to capitalize on that feature for over a half-century. Without exploiting it, we effectively treat separate radar-derived “coordinates” by intersecting volumes in space that are common to overlapping spheres. Resulting uncertainty volume is enormously larger than it should be.

The feature just noted shows up dramatically when mixing data among multiple platforms. Consider cooperative engagement whereby participants, all tracking each other via network-transmitted GPS observations, share radar observations from an unknown non-participant. Share measurements or coordinates? No contest; multiple lines crossing from different directions can offer best (i.e., along-range) accuracies applicable in 3-D.

That fact (i.e., combining data from different sensors and different platforms further dramatizes available improvements) doesn’t diminish the basic issue; even with a time history of data from only one radar, a designer with direct measurements available — instead of, not in addition to, coordinates — can provide incomparably superior performance.

“Send Measurements not Coordinates” (1999; #66 from the “Published Articles” panel, opening with eight rock-solid reasons) was aimed at GPS rather than radar. Many of the principles are the same when mixing data with information from other platforms — and from other sensors such as GPS. There is no reason, in fact, why data from satellite navigation and radar can’t be combined in the same estimation algorithm. That practice hasn’t evolved but the historical separation of operations (e.g., navigation and surveillance), arising from old equipment limitations, should no longer be a constraint. Moreover, with focus shifted from tracking to navigation, integration with additional (e.g., inertial) data offers still more reasons for using direct measurements. Rather than loose integration, superior benefits are widely known to result as the sophistication progresses forward (tight. ultratight, and deep integration).

Further elaborations on “casting off our old habits” appear from different perspectives in various blogs, one-pagers, and a few manuscripts available at this site. If your library has a copy of GNSS Aided Navigation & Tracking  pages 203-4 show a way to implement the cooperative sharing of radar data obtained from a non-participant, among participants tracking each other via the mutual surveillance and tracking approach defined earlier in that same chapter.

Because so many operational systems (in fact, a vast majority) use reports in the form of coordinates, reiteration is warranted. The central issue is the content, not the amount, of data. Rather than coordinates, provide accurately time-stamped direct measurements with links connected to whichever platform observed the data (e.g., for satnav — pseudoranges; for radar — range, azimuth, elevation). Those links are automatically attached when Mode-S extended squiter (e.g., chosen for ADSB) is the means for conveying the data.  For message content, strictly disallow “massaging the data beyond the light of day” (e.g., by unknown processes, with uncertain timing, … ) which invariably results in enormous loss of performance in common occurrence today.


The number of runway incursions, as shown on an FAA URL  was nearly a thousand in FY 2011 and 1150 for FY 2012.  A subsequent article shows renewed interest in their prevention.

A hundredfold reduction in velocity error (from meters/sec to cm/sec) was shown in flight for squitter message transmission — but with measurement-based message content, as discussed in an accompanying blog.  A publication describing highly favorable results in air (3-D) could readily extend to 2-D (surface).

As an alternative to TCAS in air and ASDE on ground, all facets of collision avoidance (see 9-minute video) can be supplanted with vast improvement:

  • INTEGRATION – one system for both 2-D (runway incursions) and 3-D (in-air)
  • AUTONOMY – no ground station corrections required
  • COMMUNICATION – interrogation/response replaced by ModeS squitter operation
  • COORDINATION – coordinated squitter scheduling eliminates garble
  • TRACKING – all tracks maintained with GPS pseudoranges in data packets
  • DYNAMICS – tracks provide optimally estimated velocity as well as position
  • TIMELINESS – history of dynamics with position counteracts latency
  • MULTITARGET HANDLING – every participant can track every other participant
  • CONTROL – collisions avoided by deceleration rather than climb/dive

My previous investigations (publication #61 and #66, combined with publication #85 as well as Chapter 9 of GNSS Aided Navigation and Tracking) provided in-depth analyses for all but the last of these items.  The control aspect of the problem is addressed here.  This introductory discussion involves only two participants, initially on a coaltitude collision course.  One (the “intruder”) continues with his path unchanged (so that the method could remain applicable for encounters between a participant and a non-participant tracked by radar or optical sensors).  The other (“evader”) decelerates to change projected miss distance to a chosen design value.  This simplest-of-all scenarios can readily be extended to encounters at different altitudes and, by reapplying the method to all users wherever projected miss distance falls below a designated threshold, to multiple-participant cases.

Considered here are simple scenarios with aircraft initially on a collision course at angles from 30 to 130 degrees between their velocity vectors.  Those limits can of course be changed but, the closer the paths are to collinear the more deceleration is required to prevent a collision (in the limit – direct head-on – no amount of deceleration can suffice; turns are required instead).  Turns can be addressed in the future; here we briefly discuss the 30-to-130 degree span.

In Coordinates Magazine and again as applied to UAVs it was shown that, over a wide combination of intruder speed, evader speed, and angles (within the 30-to-130 degree span just noted), the required amount of evader speed reduction is modest.  A linearized approximation can be derived intuitively from scenario parameter values.  The speeds and the angle determine a closing range rate, while closest approach time is near the initial time-to-go (ratio of initial distance to closing rate) though deceleration produces a difference.  The projection of evader speed reduction along the relative velocity vector direction has approximately that much time to build up 500 to 1000 meters of accumulated horizontal separation.  Initiation of the speed change that far in advance allows the dynamics to be gradual, in marked contrast to the sudden TCAS maneuver.  To avoid a wake problem, the evader’s aim point can be directed to a few hundred feet above the original coaltitude.  Continuous tracking of the intruder allows the evader to perform repetitive trim adjustments.

A program with results illustrating this scheme will not fit on a one-page summary, but it comes as no surprise that, with accurate tracks established well in advance (a minute or two prior to closest approach time), a modest deceleration can successfully avert collisions.