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.

In 2013 a phone presentation was arranged, for me to talk for an hour with a couple dozen engineers at Raytheon. The original plan was to scrutinize the many facets and ramifications of timing in avionics. The scope expanded about halfway through, to include topics of interest to any participant. I was gratified when others raised issues that have been of major concern to me for years (in some cases, even decades).  Receiving a reminder from another professional, that I’m not alone in these concerns, prompts me to reiterate at least some aspects of the ongoing struggle — but this time citing a recent report of flight test verification

The breadth of the struggle is breathtaking. The About panel of this site offers short summaries, all confirmed by authoritative sources cited therein, describing the impact on each of four areas (satnav + air safety + DoD + workforce preparation). Shortcomings in all four areas are made more severe by continuation of outdated methods, as unnecessary as they are fundamental, Not everyone wants to hear this but it’s self-evident: conformance to custom — using decades-old design concepts (e.g., TCAS) plus procedures (e.g., position reports) and conventions (e.g., interface standards — guarantees outmoded legacy systems. Again, while my writings on this site and elsewhere — advocating a different direction — go back decades, I’m clearly not alone (e.g., recall those authoritative sources just noted). Changing more minds, a few at a time, can eventually lead to correction of shortcomings in operation.

We’re not pondering minor improvements, but dramatic ones. To realize them, don’t communicate with massaged data; put raw data on the interface. Communicate in terms of measurements, not coordinates — that’s how DGPS became stunningly successful. Even while using all the best available protection against interference, (including anti-spoof capability), follow through and maximize your design for robustness;  expect occurrences of poor GDOP &/or less than a full set of SVs instantaneously visible. Often that occurrence doesn’t really constitute loss of satnav; when it’s accompanied by history of 1-sec changes in carrier phase, those high-accuracy measurements prevent buildup of position error. With 1-sec carrier phase changes coming in, the dynamics don’t veer toward any one consistent direction; only location veers during position data deficiencies (poor GDOP &/or incomplete fixes) and, even then, only within limits allowed by that continued accurate dynamic updating. Integrity checks also continue throughout.

So then, take into account the crucial importance of precise dynamic information when a full position fix isn’t instantaneously available. Take what’s there and stop discarding it. Redefine requirements to enable what ancient mariners did suboptimally for many centuries — and we’ve done optimally for over a half-century.  Covariances combined with monitored residuals can indicate quality in real time. Aircraft separation means maintaining a stipulated relative distance between them, irrespective of their absolute positions and errors in their absolute positions. None of this is either mysterious or proprietary, and none of this imposes demands for huge budgets or scientific breakthroughs — not even corrections from ground stations.

A compelling case arises from cumulative weight of all these considerations. Parts of the industry have begun to address it. Ohio University has done flight testing (mentioned in the opening paragraph here) that validates the concepts just summarized. Other investigations are likely to result from recent testing of ADSB. No claim is intended that all questions have been answered, but — clearly — enough has been raised to warrant a dialogue with those making decisions affecting the long term.

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.