When is a GPS Glitch Really a GPS Glitch?

Came across this interesting AP article yesterday.  It’s well worth reading, and pretty accurate so far as it goes.  But it’s written in a way so many GPS articles are these days, attempting to cast doubt or blame on the government.  It’s really the story of a commercial company who hopped on the free GPS bandwagon, marketed a lot of high priced GPS equipment, and didn’t quite follow to free specifications telling people who want to sue the GPS how to do so.

Glitch shows how much US military relies on GPS

By DAN ELLIOTT (AP) – 22 hours ago

DENVER — A problem that rendered as many as 10,000 U.S. military GPS receivers useless for days is a warning to safeguard a system that enemies would love to disrupt, a defense expert says.

The Air Force has not said how many weapons, planes or other systems were affected or whether any were in use in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the problem, blamed on incompatible software, highlights the military’s reliance on the Global Positioning System and the need to protect technology that has become essential for protecting troops, tracking vehicles and targeting weapons.

"Everything that moves uses it," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, which tracks military and homeland security news. "It is so central to the American style of war that you just couldn’t leave home without it."

(Actually I’m a great admirer of Professor Pike, but he’s just flat out wrong in those statements.  A great many military weapons systems … example our silo-based ICBM’s, make no use of GPS whatever, and a great many commercial aircraft fly without GPS also.  While I certainly agree it’s an important technology, it is hardly as ubiquitous in the commercial world as it has become in the private realm.)

The problem occurred when new software was installed in ground control systems for GPS satellites on Jan. 11, the Air Force said.

Officials said between 8,000 at 10,000 receivers could have been affected, out of more than 800,000 in use across the military.

(Quite frankly, when rolling out a major change in software to a network populated by hundreds of thousands of “uncontrolled” users, a 1% failure rate, which is what we have here, is a HUGE success.  When someone like Google, for example, changes something in their interface, do you think only about 1 % of the “uncontrolled” users out there across the web have problems?  It numbers more in the millions I would think.)

The Air Force said it hadn’t tested the affected receivers before installing the new software in the ground control system.

(It was not the job of the US Air Force to test the receivers.  They didn’t own them, weren’t under Air Force control in many cases and it is ALL GPS receiver’s task to follow the signal from the satellites, provided the signal is in the parameters of the ICD (Interface Control Document) which is the “contract” between the GPS Program Office and all users, world-wide.  If the author, Mr. Elliott, has his own GPS receiver, would he welcome the Air Force showing up at his door demanding he surrender his receiver so the new software change could be tested against it?  Seriously, this is an inane paragraph and accusation … the USAF nor any other world entity can test every GPS receiver in the world, even the military (foreign and domestic) owned ones.  This is the point an otherwise sensible article changes into nonsense, when a reporter assigns responsibilities to folks who don’t have that responsibility.

Seriously folks … I know the US military id the always available back-up whipping boy to blame any and all issues on …  but get real here, don’t broadcast to the world that my alma mater failed in their job when it wasn’t even their job to do so … that’s a cheap shot … or an ignorant one)

…. The Air Force said it traced the problem to the Trimble receivers’ software. Trimble said it had no problems when it tested the receivers, using Air Force specifications, before the ground-control system software was updated.

(So, now, many paragraphs down we come to the crux of the matter … a “he said”/”she said” between the USAF and Trimble, a huge, highly competent GPS industry giant who also had way less than 1% of its own products affected by this software change.  Hardly the facts that “world-wide” glitches are made from, in my view.)

Ever buy a computer that didn’t do some task properly?  Ever have  a car that wouldn’t start or an airline flight that lest 3 hours late because of maintenance issues?  Let’s put this into perspective, gentlemen, shall we.  Mr.Hasik makes much more sense in his quotes below … did anyone read them before all the ‘scare tactic” headlines and stories were already written? )

Civilian receivers use different signals and had no problems.

Defense industry consultant James Hasik said it’s not shocking some receivers weren’t tested. GPS started as a military system in the 1970s but has exploded into a huge commercial market, and that’s where most innovation takes place.

"It’s hard to track everything," said Hasik, co-author of "The Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare." …

image The rest of the article is a lot of random chat about hacking into the GPS, jamming the GPS, etc., which has nothing to do with the alleged subject, a problem the USAF caused which caused a failure in it’s own system.    In spite of Mr. Elliott’s premise that the US military relies very heavily on the GPS, he actually cotes only a couple of somewhat obscure research and development programs.  The rest of the millions upon millions of users around the globe seem to have gone on without a single hiccup.

I fail to see the relevance of the tiny “glitch”, except to point out that the GPS, like thousands of other utilities of both peace and war, have vulnerabilities, folks who seek to exploit those vulnerabilities and those who work to protect them.   But it’s hard to ascribe blame in general discussions, much more headline worthy to make accusatory statement about the “testing the USAF failed to do”.

There are a lot of very interesting and useful articles published on the GPS.  Sadly, this was not one of them.