What would happen if GPS – the Global Positioning System – stopped working?
To begin with, we would all have to engage our brains and pay attention to the world around us as we went from A to B. Maybe that was not bad: we would be less likely to reach rivers or cliffs by misplacement. trust our navigation devices.
Choose your own favorite story about the kind of idiocy that only GPS can afford. Mine is the swedish couple who spelled wrong the italian island of capri and appeared hundreds of miles away in Carpi, asking where the sea was.
But these are the exceptions.
Devices that use GPS often keep us from getting lost. If it failed, the roads would become clogged, with drivers slowing to look at signs or stopping to consult maps. If your route involves a train, there will be no information boards to know when to expect your next arrival.
Call a cab and you'll find a harassed operator trying to keep up with your fleet by calling drivers. Open the Uber app and – well, you get it.
Without GPS, emergency services would begin to struggle: operators would not be able to locate callers by telephone signal or identify the nearest ambulance or police car.
There would be grunts in the ports: container cranes need GPS to unload ships.
Gaps may appear on supermarket shelves as just-in-time logistics systems stop. Factories could be idle because their inputs did not arrive on time either.
Agriculture, construction, fishing, surveying – these are other industries mentioned by a UK government report that estimates the cost of GPS will decrease by about $ 1 billion (£ 820 million) per day for the first five days.
If it lasts much longer, we may begin to worry about the resilience of a whole load of other systems that may not have occurred to you if you think of GPS as a location service.
That's it, but it's also an hourly service.
50 Things That Made The Modern Economy Highlights the inventions, ideas, and innovations that helped create the economic world.
It is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the show's sources and listen to all episodes online or subscribe to the show's podcast.
GPS consists of 24 satellites that carry synchronized clocks with extreme accuracy.
When your smartphone uses GPS to locate it on a map, it picks up signals from some of these satellites – and makes calculations based on the time the signal was sent and where the satellite was.
If the clocks on these satellites are lost for a millionth of a second, you will be lost in 200 km or 300 km.
So if you want incredibly accurate time information, GPS is the place to get it.
Consider phone networks: Your calls share space with others through a technique called multiplexing – data is stamped, scrambled, and scrambled on the other side.
A failure of just 100,000ths of a second can cause problems. Bank payments, stock exchanges, power grids, digital television, cloud computing – all depend on different locations, depending on the time.
If GPS failed, how well, and how long, and how long would backup systems keep these various shows on the road? The not very reassuring answer is that no one really seems to know.
No wonder GPS sometimes called an "invisible utility".
Trying to put a dollar value has become almost impossible. As author Greg Milner puts it in Pinpoint: As GPS is changing our world, you may also ask, "How much is oxygen worth to the human respiratory system?"
- GPS pioneers receive Queen Elizabeth Engineering Award
It's a remarkable story for an invention that gained support in the US military because it could help bomb people – and was even far from sure that it needed to be. A typical response was, "I know where I am, why do I need a damn satellite to tell me where I am?"
GPS pioneers Richard Schwartz, Brad Parkinson, James Spilker Jr and Hugo Fruehauf received the Queen Elizabeth Engineering Award
The first GPS satellite launched in 1978 – but it wasn't until the first Gulf War in 1990 that skeptics arrived.
As Operation Desert Storm encountered a literal desert storm with swirling sand reducing visibility to 5 m (16 ft), GPS enabled soldiers to pinpoint mines, return to water sources and avoid getting in each other's way.
It was obviously so lifesaving, and the military had so few receivers out there that soldiers asked their families in the United States to spend their own money sending over $ 1,000 (820) commercially available devices.
GPS technology was extremely useful for allied soldiers during the ground war offensive of the Gulf War against Kuwait.
Given the military advantage conferred by GPS, you may be wondering why the US military was happy for everyone to use it. The truth was, they weren't, but they couldn't do much about it.
They tried to get satellites to send two signals – one accurate for their own use and one degraded and confusing for civilians – but companies found clever ways to focus more on diffuse signals. And the economic momentum was becoming increasingly clear.
More things that made the modern economy:
The US taxpayer pays the billions of dollars a year needed to keep GPS running, and that's very kind of them. But is it wise for the rest of the world to trust your continued generosity?
In fact, GPS is not the only global satellite navigation system.
China's rival service Beidou is expanding rapidly with more than 10 satellite launches in 2018
There is also a Russian named Glonass – although not so good. China and the European Union have their own very advanced projects, called Beidou and Galileo, respectively. Japan and India are also working on systems.
- Like the & # 39; rival & # 39; Chinese GPS Beidou is planning to go global
- Galileo satellite navigation system not yet in service
These alternate satellites can help us solve GPS-specific problems – but they can also create tempting military targets in any future conflict, and you can imagine a space war toppling all those offline. A large enough solar storm could also do the job.
There are terrestrial alternatives to satellite navigation. The principal is called eLoran, but it does not cover the whole world, and some countries are trying harder than others in their national systems.
A big appeal of eLoran is that its signals are stronger. By the time GPS signals have made their 20,000 km journey to Earth, they are extremely weak – making them easy to block or fake if you know what you are doing.
Russia has denied Israeli suggestions that it is behind the continuous disruption of GPS signals at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport
People paid to think about these things worry less about apocalyptic scenarios – waking up one day to find out everything offline – and more about the potential for terrorists or nation states to wreak havoc by transmitting inaccurate signals to GPS receivers in a given area.
Engineering professor Todd Humphreys has shown that counterfeiting can bring down drones and divert super yachts. He fears attackers might fry electricity grids, damage mobile networks or break stock exchanges.
The truth is that it is difficult to be sure how much damage the fake GPS signals can cause.
But ask the Swedish tourists in Carpi. Knowing that you are lost is one thing; Being unduly convinced that you know where you are is another problem.
The author writes the Financial Times Disguised Economist column. 50 things that made the modern economy broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the show's sources and listen to all episodes online or subscribe to the show's podcast.