Following successful trials at the White Sands Missile Range development facility, the United States Air Force (USAF) today announced Locata technology has been officially declared “operational”. USAF, the same organisation that in the 1970s developed GPS, is already in the process of replacing the navigation systems it developed with the more secure, ubiquitous and powerful technology provided by Locata.
Judging by the path that GPS has taken from the 1970s to today, it safe to say that when the USAF changes their core navigation system, a revolution in positioning is underway. A revolution led by none other than Australian technology firm Locata Corporation.
The Canberra-based company has over 150 patents granted under their name and are set to roll out the technology to the consumer market. After eight years of development, Locata are now confident that the same positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) technology now being implemented by the U.S. Air Force will trickle down into personal consumer device markets such as mobile phones and autonomous vehicles within just a few years.
The announcement from the USAF also confirmed that Locata’s Non-GPS Based Positioning System (NGBPS) network will be the core technology which underpins the US military’s future testing in development of next-generation positioning and navigation systems.
Locata’s solution has the potential to replace the satellite-reliant system of positioning constellations such as the United States’ GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, the European Union’s Galileo and the Chinese BeiDou – collectively known as GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems). Rather than using satellites which are expensive to deploy and cannot provide positioning coverage in areas without satellite coverage, Locata is based on what they call ‘a local constellation’. These local networks of three or more ground-based Locata transceivers can be placed in any environment to allow wireless triangulation of a user’s position.
Applications are everywhere, literally
Importantly, this solution is ideal for notoriously troublesome locations such as indoors, in mines, warehouses and amongst tall buildings in so called ‘urban canyons.’ In these environments even the most advanced GNSS receivers cannot operate reliably, so to ensure effective navigation which empowers automation of vehicles, logistics, commerce and personal navigation, an alternative to the satellite-based systems has emerged as an enabling technology. Indoor positioning for mobile phones, in particular, has been a holy grail of positioning for over a decade.
Based on the USAF’s decision, it seems Locata is set to become the company to fill the void. Locata provided real-time cm-level accuracy across a vast area of the White Sands Missile Range up to a height of over 25,000 feet (7.6km) – in a coverage area about 80 times the size of Manhattan (or bigger than the Australian Capital Territory). According to the USAF, the Locata-based solution performed better than their existing, most advanced GNSS positioning solution. Even when GNSS signals are completely jammed, the USAF announced the Locata-based solution is already “perfectly able to support current customer requirements.”
It’s not just the potential ubiquity of Locata that is generating attention, but also its reliability. At present it’s extremely easy to disable any GNSS usage through a process known as jamming, by transmitting signals using parts just about anybody can acquire from an electronics supply store. For military and security applications, it’s extremely important to have a solution guaranteed to work in the face of jamming. Locata signals can be made extremely hard to jam because the signal power level can be increased simply by adding amplification. This cannot be done with GPS satellite signals. Locata signals can also be encrypted to ensure civilian applications can attain the same level of security enjoyed by the most advanced military systems.
The revolution will be synchronised
In the wake of the news from USAF, SpatialSource spoke to Locata’s co-founder and Executive Chairman, Nunzio Gambale, who sees that this revolution is already underway.
“This is happening now. The same people who invented GPS have validated our technology in the most demanding of positioning applications.” Gambale said. “The USAF declaring Initial Operational Capability (IOC) means Locata is the core of a new level of performance for GPS-style systems.”
“Locata can improve positioning both in conjunction with existing satellites – but critically – also in the complete absence of any satellites whatsoever. This is plainly a brand-new and unprecedented capability.
“And our team is working hard to put this in your phone one day soon” – Nunzio Gambale.
The company’s engineers, led by co-founder and Locata inventor David Small, is now in the process of ‘shrinking’ its technology down for use in such things as aviation, autonomous vehicles and future 5G cellular networks.
With the recent appointment of Professor Hermann Eul to their Advisory Board, Locata is set to see their applications up-scaled ad infinitum. Until recently the Corporate Vice President of Mobile Technologies at Intel, Professor Hermann Eul is a heavy-hitter in the world of technology, having previously led the teams which established the first mobile networks in Europe with Siemens, as well as being CTO of German semiconductor manufacturer Infineon Technologies. Now Eul has teamed up with Locata and clearly sees the potential they have created.
“When I first looked at Locata technology I immediately got excited about many aspects I saw,” Eul has said. “Anyone who wishes to study Locata closely will also quickly understand what I learned… Locata has superior solutions for two of the most fundamental and difficult challenges which face radio systems in the 21st Century – synchronisation and multipath.”
“Their technology is already very mature and it obviously works extremely well for the position, navigation and automation applications Locata addresses today”- Professor Hermann Eul.
“However, even more so, I am thrilled by the capabilities Locata is developing which could revolutionise many other markets once the core technology gets transferred to an ASIC [chipset].”
With the help of Eul’s advisory and networks, Locata expects to have completed the design component for a chip for consumer-level devices by the end of this year. However, it will require another 12-18 months of real-world testing and development before we see the chip landing in your new device.
How does it work?
To those that require it, Locata is relatively simple to set up and use. Like GNSS, there are two elements to a LocataNet: the transmitter and the positioning receiver. In the case of GNSS, these are the satellite constellation and the GPS-enabled device. For LocataNet they are the LocataLite transceiver (their equivalent of a GPS satellite) and Locata-enabled devices.
If you wanted to enable LocataNet in your facility, the first requirement is to establish the position of the transceiver network installation, using any traditional survey technique. Then, by simply switching on the transceivers, it enables the automatic synchronisation of time in a process known as TimeLoc. This is a colossal jump in the core process when compared to GNSS, which relies on a 40 billion dollar infrastructure of satellite-based atomic clocks to achieve this. Once the Locata network is synchronised, any Locata enabled devices can establish accurate position anywhere within range of three or more transceivers, just as in GNSS positioning.
The compatibility with GPS systems is further simplified by the fact that to incorporate Locata into an existing GNSS receiver or process is no different than an engineer today adding integration for GLONASS or Galileo signals. This means that Locata and GNSS can operate simultaneously with the same chipset.
A technology reaching maturity
Initial iterations of LocataNet have already been in use for a number of years for industrial and military applications. For instance, since 2013 the LocataNet solution has been in action at Newmont’s Boddington Gold Mine in Western Australia, which was the first large network to deploy the Locata solution. Locata’s technology, integrated by Leica Geosystems in this instance, provides non-stop 24/7 cm-accurate positioning and machine guidance. As such, it is a world-first, state-of-the-art facility, and a key example of one of the mining networks run by mainly non-spatial users that have adopted Locata technology.
More recently, Locata was invited by the US President’s Position, Navigation and Time Advisory Board to present a demonstration of their TimeLoc synchonisation solution in Washington DC. Locata set a new standard in technology, when TimeLoc synchronisation was proven to be accurate to around half a billionth of second across a large area of Washington DC – all without an atomic clock.
Nunzio Gambale says that until now his teamed has been faced with skepticism and misunderstanding because what they claimed seemed to be “impossible to deliver without the atomic clocks which have always been required previously”. The latest developments announced in the United States may just be the breakthrough proof that this Australian company needs to overcome any doubt.
“Locata is what comes after GPS,” he says.
“Locata can reliably deliver centimeter level positioning over any local area that you wish to cover, and nanosecond level synchronisation without using atomic clocks.
“It is truly a revolutionary advance. And it’s proudly Australian.”