Cyberthreats prompt return of radio for ship navigation

LONDON • 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 II 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. 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 radio signals.

The drive follows a series of disruptions to shipping navigation systems. It was not clear if they involved deliberate attacks; navigation specialists say solar weather effects can also lead to satellite signal loss.

Unlike aircraft, ships lack a back-up navigation system and if their GPS ceases to function, they risk running aground or collision. Last year, South Korea said hundreds of fishing vessels' GPS signals were jammed by hackers from North Korea, which denied responsibility. In June, a ship in the Black Sea reported its GPS system had been disrupted; over 20 ships in the same area had been similarly affected.

US Coast Guard said interference with ships' GPS disrupted operations at an unnamed port for several hours in 2014 and at another terminal in 2015.

US engineer Brad Parkinson, known as the "father of GPS" and its chief developer, is among those who have supported eLoran's deployment as a back-up.

Cyber specialists say the problem with GPS and other Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) is their weak signals, which are transmitted from 20,120km above earth and can be disrupted with cheap jamming devices.

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. "My own view, and it is only my view, is we are too dependent on GNSS/GPS position-fixing systems," said Mr Grant Laversuch, head of safety management at P&O Ferries.

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. But the reluctance of many countries to commit to a back-up suggests there is little chance of unified radio coverage globally for many years. British trials ended after London failed to garner interest from European countries whose transmitters were needed to create a signal network.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2017, with the headline 'Cyberthreats prompt return of radio for ship navigation'. Print Edition | Subscribe