Diary year 2011 for GPS disasters? (Remember Y2K too)

I won’t be holding my breath waiting for this one, and I suspect the millions of GPS (or SatNav to use today’s cool buzzword) wandering around in 2011 won’t notice a thing either.

According to a recent New Scientist article, the period of 2001 to 2012 is going to be a black for GPS users as out little technological gems do everything short of rolling over and dying in response to the next sunspot maximum. Expect aircraft to fall out of the sky, air traffic control to grind to a halt, and the emergency services to disappear up their own backsides.

I think not (but the story will get the authors noticed).

I’m almost tempted to go and look up the sources for the articles that predicted the disasters that would befall us all as the Y2K bug bit as we transitioned from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000. Remember the warning not to fly, the predictions of exploding nuclear power plants, and the loss of gas and electricity¬† supplies? Still waiting for that one to materialise too.

Apart from the fact that all the systems (especially the life-critical ones) had high-tech management systems in place before GPS came along, and that (currently) GPS may be good, but is not yet considered suitable for use as a stand-alone reference in critical system. Remember, the current system still belongs to the US military – civilian use is just a courtesy they could withdraw at any time. Its success has spawned civilian systems, such as Galileo, and there’s always the Russians GLONASS alternative (if you can get hold of a receiver). There’s also the small, but very probably significant fact that most of the software inside GPS receivers is very, very clever, and (provided you choose the right manufacturer) is written to make best use of available satellites under very poor reception conditions, and still provide an accurate fix, or alert the user if they can’t.

The 11 year cycle last peaked around 2000. Given that were also supposed to be succumbing to the Millennium Bug at the same time, it’s a wonder we’re still here. In reality, GPS had been around for a number of years by then. I’d had mine since at least 1998, and spent prior time with other people’s before splashing out my own cash. 2000 came and went. My GPS was in almost daily use until 2002, and the effect of Y2k (which was heralded as GPS killer then) and the sunspot maximum was… nothing, not a blip, not a hiccup, not even a hint of a stumble or the tiniest trip.

Actually, I do believe there is an effect, I just don’t think it’s as drastic as the messengers of doom would have us believe, and that the software writer’s magic insulates us from it. Not intentionally, but as a handy side effect of the processing techiniques required to utilise the miniscule signals received from the GPS satellites, which are so weak after their 12,600 mile journey, they can’t penetrate tree cover. The software also incorporates methods to compensate for errors induced by atmospheric conditions in the ionosphere, and a number of other effects, depending on its sophistication.


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