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Research aims to prevent maritime GPS cyber-attacks

Fri 22 Jul 2016

Researchers from the the University of Nottingham and Royal Norwegian Naval Academy are investigating the prevention of cyber-attacks involving GPS jamming. Devices that can disrupt a ship’s GPS signal are available for less than $100, and can cause potentially disastrous accidents on the sea.

The team simulated a GPS disruption and tested a low-cost solution involving multi-frequency receivers to make vessels more resistant to GPS jamming attacks.

The researchers conducted their study in the busy shipping straits of Norway, where half of the maritime accidents are attributed to navigational error. Using a high-end surveying grade receiver on the shore, the team deployed a GPS jammer on a small boat, moving closer to and away from the receiver to simulate the action of a boat moving through the strait.

They found that a jammer could cause a vessel to receive false location data of up to 10 meters – a discrepancy that could easily result in a major accident.

“Observed discrepancies of up to 10 meters are very hazardous, considering the narrow nature of the Norwegian straits, which are frequently affected by poor visibility,” said Lieutenant Commander Oeystein Glomsvoll from the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy Navigation Center. “GPS jamming is a worldwide growing problem. The technology for jamming is readily available, resulting in many cases of intentional jamming in recent years.”

Modern day maritime vessels rely heavily on the use of digital global positioning signals (DGPS). DGPS receivers are more accurate than traditional GPS devices, providing accurate positioning data within a meter of actual location. However, DGPS devices are highly sensitive and therefore easily disrupted.

Conditions in the Norwegian straits are particularly hazardous, due to the high level of activity that brings vessels from all over the world, combined with changing weather conditions and dangerous waters. These hazardous conditions have created a high level of dependence on DGPS technology for safety; but a high level of dependence on technology that is sensitive to disruption has created a vulnerability for those vessels as well.

Dr. Lukasz Bonenberg, senior technical officer at the University of Nottingham’s Geospatial Institute, said, “In these difficult conditions, with a need for high-accuracy navigation, there tends to be an over-dependence on DGPS technology which can lead to a false feeling of security.

He added, “Affected vessels could take a long time to correct their journey or physically stop, which may cause the maritime equivalent of a motorway pile-up.”

The team explored a solution that could preserve the accuracy of the GPS systems while avoiding costly upgrades. They found that combining existing DGPS L1 receivers, used by a majority of vessels, with a multi-frequency GLONASS receiver can significantly reduce a ship’s vulnerability to GPS jammers.

“The use of multi-constellation receivers and an increase in the frequencies received offers better jamming resilience for close-to-shore navigation,” said Dr. Bonenberg.

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