Most people think they have GPS in their iPhone, but they do not. What is in our smartphones is a component that’s just a small part of a vast architecture of satellites and ground stations, all of which were built, deployed, and maintained by the US Air Force during the Cold War to assure military navigation during a nuclear Winter. The Space Force continues maintaining this capability for the nations today, at a cost of about $2B annually courtesy of the American taxpayer.
Many argue for a continuation of the status quo because of the commercial economic growth realized by the historic government run GPS system, a sort of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mentality. The problem is, however, that GPS’s initial advantages have become insufficient for the sophisticated and precise requirements modern and future technology requires.
We’ve seen this scenario before with many of our government’s civil and military investments – the policy challenge is knowing when to phase aging systems out and when to invest in new solutions. Much like the growing obsolescence of the once-venerable, government-designed rockets that won us the space race against the Soviets, the Space Force’s vaunted Global Positioning System is becoming increasingly outdated.
Outside of modern warfare, even urban navigation by ordinary civilians has evolved over time, outpacing our government’s capabilities. Try using your GPS enabled device in any foreign city, and it will often give you a location two or three blocks away. American soldiers and airmen need more precise, assured coordinates to minimize civilian casualties. Modern society needs GPS for the exciting future of more autonomy: everything from self-driving cars to pilotless air taxis. Try as it might, the Space Force system has just not been able to keep up with the demands of modern technology. Even the sorely needed unjammable “M-code” still does not work for the warfighter on the ground, leaving them vulnerable to being jammed or worse, spoofed.
With the Army’s growing frustration of Space Force leadership on this critical utility, America’s commercial participants see an opportunity to serve an unmet need. I had a chance to catch up with Chris DeMay, the prototypical new space entrepreneur. Before he founded Hawkeye360, Chris was a systems engineer and program director at both the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. In 2020, he founded TrustPoint, a GPS startup. TrustPoint is developing a fully commercial navigation constellation. Its system is meant to improve performance, security and reliability for GPS users and is made possible by the new generation of small, compact satellites – at a cost that is orders of magnitude less expensive than the government ones. In fact, DeMay tells me he can, “build a full constellation for the price of just a single GPS III.”
Putting these smallsats in LEO allows for more coverage with a stronger received signal, resulting in much more accurate locations. In DeMay’s words, “taking advantage of a clean sheet designed end-to-end PNT service,” can get to operating costs of under $1M per year, compared to a billion per year currently. TrustPoint will deliver a GPS capability that will integrate exceptionally well with the government’s GPS III system initially as part of the Space Force’s pivot to a hybrid space architecture for greater resiliency.
Brian Manning, Founder and CEO of Xona Space, represents another commercial company that is developing precision navigation from space. Manning is a big believer in the Space Force’s Hybrid Space Architecture vision – combining bespoke government systems with smaller, cheaper, more agile commercial satellites – and is embracing the concept in Xona’s other missions, like communications and remote sensing. He reminds me, “there are some 6 billion devices today using GPS, undoubtedly the most widely used service to ever be provided by satellites.” The challenge for the future is meeting the unique PNT needs that are important to the stability or security of the country. He believes, of course, that the Pulsar constellation his company is developing is one of the key to a hybrid architecture future.
Doug Loverro is a former USAF colonel who is widely acclaimed for running the GPS and other programs, later leading all of space policy in the Pentagon and the human spaceflight program at NASA. He also sees the commercial space having a necessary role: “What we really need the commercial world to do is to solve the problem of how to bring these all together [GPS, Galileo, GLONASS, QZSS, IRNSS, and dozens of existing wide area augmentation satellites] in a way that solves the real issues users have.” The revolution we need is to solve things like “indoor reception, cyber security, and relative precision accuracy,” he says.
When will the Space Force finally capture this moment of private investor enthusiasm and brilliant entrepreneurs like DeMay and Manning, with clever business and technology models to lead for another century? It needs to be now if we are to maintain the military and economic advantages it gives us.
The entrepreneur innovation engine is knocking at the door of GPS. There are at least a dozen startup companies in varying levels of maturity and capital, eager to leverage the last 50 years of the government’s GPS knowledge and experience to solve these challenges. The Space Force leadership would be wise to leverage and incorporate the potential of this nascent industry to ensure an American century of commercial leadership in this area. We’ve already cleared up all the administrative work to create a functioning separate service – let’s hope true progress down this path begins today.