The future of GPS is as unlimited as your imagination, according to one aerospace company that says GPS satellites, like stars in the sky, will guide us well into the future.
But the U.S. Government Accountability Office says the Global Positioning System is at risk of an interruption if the Air Force, which controls the satellite system, doesn't act fast.
The Air Force currently provides free GPS and plans to invest $5.8 billion in the system over the next five years. Completed in 1994, GPS has helped not only the military, but companies, first responders, and civilians.
In the past few years the Air Force has struggled to build GPS satellites, blaming the delay on schedules and cost. Technological challenges, including difficulty in synchronization of next-generation satellites with ground control and user equipment, have also caused delays.
All the challenges have caused the Air Force's IFF satellite program to be $870 million over budget and three years behind schedule.
Clock is Ticking
"It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption," said Cristina Chaplain, director of GAO acquisition and sourcing management. "If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected."
So the convenience of having TomToms, Garmins and even handheld GPS systems on mobile phones could be something people will have to do without. First responders, airline companies, ships and others who rely on GPS will be faced with an even greater challenge, since they use GPS for more than just finding a trendy restaurant.
Chaplain said military users face a delay in using new GPS capabilities, including improved resistance to jamming, because of poor synchronization of satellites with ground control and user devices.
If the Air Force doesn't meet its schedule to develop GPS IIIA satellites, it's likely the old satellites will begin to fail in 2010 and the GPS constellation will be below the number of satellites required to provide GPS service.
Lack of Leadership
A lack of leadership, according to the GAO report, has been a contributing factor because there is no single authority tasked with synchronizing all procurements for GPS. Funds have been diverted from ground programs to pay for problems in the space segment.
The GAO recommends that the secretary of defense appoint a single authority to oversee the development of the GPS system, including space, ground control, and user equipment.
"Given the importance of GPS to the civil community, we also recommend that the secretaries of Defense and Transportation as the cochairs of the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing, address, if weaknesses are found, civil-agency concerns for developing requirements and determine mechanisms for improving collaboration and decision-making and strengthening civil-agency participation," Champlain said.
Another challenge the system faces is compatibility with newer systems, including competing global space-related positioning, navigation and timing systems.