Is the UK over-reliant on GPS?

March 9, 2011 Off By Chris Hinton

GPS – the Global Positioning System – is a wonderful thing. Using a network of satellites, all meticulously timed and broadcasting signals, ground-based units can work out where they on the face of the planet to within a few metres. Whether it’s for finding the way in your car, working out where the nearest pub is on your iPhone or (using the more accurate military-grade version) guiding a cruise missile, the range of applications for GPS is growing day by day.
The BBC has reported, however, that a group of engineers are concerned that the UK is over-reliant on the Global Positioning System. It’s not only the average car user making use of SatNav, but emergency services and taxi drivers too. Mobile phone networks use the timing signals to synchronise their systems, while freight companies are also heavy users of the standard positioning application.
So what would happen if the GPS network went dark? Well, apparently there are backup systems in place, but the engineers’ report suggests that the backup systems are so closely tied to GPS that the possibility of a cascade failure exists. That is, whatever could cause the shutdown of the GPS network could also lead to the shutdown of any backup systems designed to take over.
The result? It might seem a bit obvious, but the main result is that anything using GPS data to function won’t. Drivers who have become reliant on the talking voice in their car may be unable to get from A to B… freight deliveries may fail… mobile and computer networks may be unable to communicate with their internal components…  and emergency services may be slower to respond to callouts. In short, major disruption that the European Commission reckons could cost around £690bn in lost revenue, Europe-wide.
Interestingly, the European Commission is working on its own Global Navigation Satellite System called Galileo which, if its compatible with existing GPS devices, or gets good take-up from device manufacturers, at least offers an extra element of redundancy.
What do you think, though? Have we put too many eggs in one basket with regards to GPS? Come to think of it, have we perhaps become over-reliant on technology in general? I know I would be lost without many of the gadgets and tools I use every day… how would you cope? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.