The United States’ GPS system, which is operated by the Defense Department, offers every one of us critical infrastructure around what is known as positioning, navigation and timing (PNT). Positioning and navigation is obvious every time we open up a maps app, but timing is also a critical function of GPS — offering our smartphones and devices precision timing to ensure that compute processes are accurately synced.
As more of the economy relies on these systems, they have increasingly become a target of hackers through GPS spoofing. The government wants to create additional redundancy and resiliency in the sector, and has explored using commercial alternatives to augment or backup parts of the GPS system.
The Department of Transportation, under a congressional mandate added to the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2018, ran a comprehensive evaluation of commercial alternatives to government-owned and operated GPS that could serve as a backup to our existing infrastructure.
Among the 11 companies considered in the study were a number of prominent positioning startups, including Satelles, which raised a $26 million round of capital in 2019; NextNav, which has raised a total of nearly $300 million, including $120 million from Fortress a year ago; and Hellen Systems, which according to Crunchbase raised a small seed round last year.
You can read the full report from the DOT, which runs to 457 pages and covers all 14 measures the researchers explored in evaluating these different PNT platforms.
The summary, though, is that there are a number of companies that offer decent backup capabilities for GPS, although the performance and cost vary widely. NextNav came out furthest ahead according to the researchers, who stated that “All [Technology Readiness Level]-qualified vendors demonstrated at least some PNT performance of value, but only one vendor, NextNav, demonstrated in all applicable use case scenarios.”
Beyond that, the DOT researchers said that “… none of the systems can universally backup the positioning and navigation capabilities provided by GPS and its augmentations.” Given the range of needs that GPS fulfills, they recommended that “a diverse universe of positioning and navigation technologies” be used to add resiliency in this infrastructure.
Finally, costs remain quite complicated to determine. Given the way that different positioning systems operate, the fixed and variable costs for each system are highly dependent on desired coverage area and necessary transmitter density. The researchers weren’t able to devise a clear opinion on the cost effectiveness of different systems, although they do offer some initial data that can provide early insight.
Given the importance of GPS and the desire for companies and the government to have reliable alternatives, VCs have dumped money on the PNT sector in recent years. Now, we have some hard data on which vendors are potentially picking up steam in terms of functionality and utility.