The risk of cyber attacks targeting ships' satellite navigation
is pushing nations to delve back through history and develop
back-up systems with roots in World War Two radio technology.
Ships use GPS (Global Positioning System) and other similar
devices that rely on sending and receiving satellite signals,
which many experts say are vulnerable to jamming by hackers.
About 90 percent of world trade is transported by sea and the
stakes are high in increasingly crowded shipping lanes. Unlike
aircraft, ships lack a back-up navigation system and if their GPS
ceases to function, they risk running aground or colliding with
South Korea is developing an alternative system using an
earth-based navigation technology known as eLoran, while the
United States is planning to follow suit. Britain and Russia have
also explored adopting versions of the technology, which works on
The drive follows a series of disruptions to shipping navigation
systems in recent months and years. It was not clear if they
involved deliberate attacks; navigation specialists say solar
weather effects can also lead to satellite signal loss.
Last year, South Korea said hundreds of fishing vessels had
returned early to port after their GPS signals were jammed by
hackers from North Korea, which denied responsibility.
In June this year, a ship in the Black Sea reported to the U.S.
Coast Guard Navigation Center that its GPS system had been
disrupted and that over 20 ships in the same area had been
U.S. Coast Guard officials also said interference with ships' GPS
disrupted operations at a port for several hours in 2014 and at
another terminal in 2015. It did not name the ports.
A cyber attack that hit A.P. Moller-Maersk's IT systems in June
2017 and made global headlines did not involve navigation but
underscored the threat hackers pose to the technology dependent
and inter-connected shipping industry. It disrupted port
operations across the world.
The eLoran push is being led by governments who see it as a means
of protecting their national security. Significant investments
would be needed to build a network of transmitter stations to
give signal coverage, or to upgrade existing ones dating back
decades when radio navigation was standard.
U.S. engineer Brad Parkinson, known as the "father of GPS" and
its chief developer, is among those who have supported the
deployment of eLoran as a back-up.
"ELoran is only two-dimensional, regional, and not as accurate,
but it offers a powerful signal at an entirely different
frequency," Parkinson told Reuters. "It is a deterrent to
deliberate jamming or spoofing (giving wrong positions), since
such hostile activities can be rendered ineffective," said
Parkinson, a retired U.S. airforce colonel.
Cyber specialists say the problem with GPS and other Global
Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) is their weak signals, which
are transmitted from 12,500 miles above the Earth and can be
disrupted with cheap jamming devices that are widely available.
Developers of eLoran - the descendant of the loran (long-range
navigation) system created during World War II - say it is
difficult to jam as the average signal is an estimated 1.3
million times stronger than a GPS signal.
To do so would require a powerful transmitter, large antenna and
lots of power, which would be easy to detect, they add.
Shipping and security officials say the cyber threat has grown
steadily over the past decade as vessels have switched
increasingly to satellite systems and paper charts have largely
disappeared due to a loss of traditional skills among seafarers.
"My own view, and it is only my view, is we are too dependent on
GNSS/GPS position fixing systems," said Grant Laversuch, head of
safety management at P&O Ferries. "Good navigation is about
cross-checking navigation systems, and what better way than
having two independent electronic systems."
Lee Byeong-gon, an official at South Korea's Ministry of Oceans
and Fisheries, said the government was working on establishing
three sites for eLoran test operations by 2019 with further ones
to follow after that.
But he said South Korea was contending with concerns from local
residents at Gangwha Island, off the west coast.
"The government needs to secure a 40,000 pyeong (132,200
square-metre) site for a transmitting station, but the residents
on the island are strongly opposed to having the 122 to 137
meter-high antenna," Lee told Reuters.
In July, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill
which included provisions for the U.S. Secretary of
Transportation to establish an eLoran system.
"This bill will now go over to the Senate and we hope it will be
written into law," said Dana Goward, president of the U.S.
non-profit Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, which
supports the deployment of eLoran.
"We don't see any problems with the President (Donald Trump)
signing off on this provision."
The previous administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and
Barack Obama both pledged to establish eLoran but never followed
through. However, this time there is more momentum.
In May, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told
a Senate committee the global threat of electronic warfare
attacks against space systems would rise in coming years.
"Development will very likely focus on jamming capabilities
against ... Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), such as
the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS)," he said.
Russia has looked to establish a version of eLoran called
eChayka, aimed at the Arctic region as sea lanes open up there,
but the project has stalled for now.
"It is obvious that we need such a system," said Vasily
Redkozubov, deputy director general of Russia's Internavigation
Research and Technical Centre.
"But there are other challenges apart from eChayka, and (Russia
has) not so many financial opportunities at the moment."
Cost is a big issue for many countries. Some European officials
also say their own satellite system Galileo is more resistant to
jamming than other receivers.
But many navigation technology experts say the system is
hackable. "Galileo can help, particularly with spoofing, but it
is also a very weak signal at similar frequencies," said
The reluctance of many countries to commit to a back-up means
there is little chance of unified radio coverage globally for
many years at least, and instead disparate areas of cover
including across some national territories and shared waterways.
The General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland had
conducted trials of eLoran but the initiative was pulled after
failing to garner interest from European countries whose
transmitters were needed to create a signal network.
France, Denmark, Norway and Germany have all decided to turn off
or dismantle their old radio transmitter stations.
Britain is maintaining a single eLoran transmitter in northern
Taviga, a British-U.S. company, is looking to commercially
operate an eLoran network, which would provide positioning,
navigation and timing (PNT).
"There would need to be at least one other transmitter probably
on the UK mainland for a timing service," said co-founder Charles
Curry, adding that the firm would need the British government to
commit to using the technology.
Andy Proctor, innovation lead for satellite navigation and PNT
with Innovate UK, the government's innovation agency, said: "We
would consider supporting a commercially run and operated
service, which we may or may not buy into as a customer."
Current government policy was "not to run large operational
pieces of infrastructure like an eLoran system", he added.
(By Jonathan Saul; Additional reporting by Terje Solsvik,
Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen, Yuna Park, Gleb Stolyarov, Sophie Louet,
Madeline Chambers and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Pravin