GPS systems could crash next year

Washington, DC – The world’s GPS systems could start to fail next year, according to a report presented to Congress. This could cause catastrophic problems for aviation, 911 services and ordinary drivers, as well as the military.

GPS devices calculate their position by comparing time signals from at least four satellites. Because the Earth is spherical, a minimum of 24 satellites is required at all times. There are currently 31 operating, but many are way past their design lifetime.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) predicts a one in five chance that the number will drop below 24 at times in 2011 and 2012, hampering accuracy. This could lead to blackouts and even misdirection of people all over the world.blames mismanagement and lack of investment.

In recent years, says the report, the Air Force has encountered technical difficulties and problems with contractors. As a result, the program has overrun its cost estimate by about $870 million, and  the launch of its first new IIIA satellite has been delayed until November – almost three years late.

Presenting the report, Cristina T Chaplain, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management for the GAO, said that both the military and civilian users could suffer. “The military could see a decrease in the accuracy of precision-guided munitions that rely on GPS to strike their targets,” she warned. “Intercontinental commercial flights use predicted satellite geometry over their planned navigation route, and may have to delay, cancel, or reroute flights. Enhanced 911 services, which rely on GPS to precisely locate callers, could lose accuracy particularly when operating in urban canyons or mountainous terrain.”

The report recommends that the Secretary of Defense appoint a single authority to oversee the development of the GPS system. The Department of Defense has agreed.