Inside The Mysterious Global Navigation Outage You Probably Didn’t Notice

The entire world has come to depend on satellite navigation systems in the forty or so years since the first Global Positioning System satellites took to orbit. Modern economies have been built on the presumption that people and assets can be located to within a meter or better anywhere on, above, or even slightly under the surface of the planet. For years, GPS was the only way to do that, but billions have been sunk into fielding other global navigation systems, achieving a measure of independence from GPS and to putting in place some badly needed redundancy in case of outages, like that suffered by the European Union’s Galileo system recently.

The problem with Galileo, the high-accuracy public access location system that’s optimized for higher latitudes, seems to be resolved as of this writing. The EU has been tight-lipped about the outage, however, leaving investigation into its root cause to a few clever hackers armed with SDRs and comprehensive knowledge of exactly how a constellation of satellites can use the principles of both general and special relativity to point you to your nearest Starbucks.

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Accurate Time On Your Pi, The Extreme Way

The Raspberry Pi is an extremely versatile little computer, but even its most ardent fans would acknowledge that there are some areas in which its hardware is slightly lacking. One of these is in the field of timing, the little board has no real-time clock. Users must rely on the on-board crystal oscillator, which is good enough as a microprocessor clock but subject to the vagaries of temperature as it is, not so much as a long-term timepiece.

[Tobias Mädel] has tackled this problem in a rather unusual way, by dispensing entirely with the crystal oscillator on an older Pi model  and instead using a clock derived from a GPS source. The source he’s used is a Leo Bodnar mini precision GPS reference clock, which includes a low-jitter synthesiser that can be set to the Pi’s 19.2 MHz required clock. Unexpectedly he also required a simple LC low-pass filter which he’s made on a sheet of PCB material, because the Pi at first appeared to be picking up a harmonic frequency. The Pi now has a clock that’s sufficiently stable for tasks such as WSPR transmission without constant referral to NTP or other timing sources to keep it on-track.

It’s a short write-up, but it brings with it a further link to a discussion of different time synchronisation techniques on a Pi including using a kernel module to synchronise with the more common GPS-derived 1PPS signal. We’ve not seen anyone else do this particular mod to a Pi before, but conversely we’ve seen a Pi provide an RF time reference to something else.

GPS And ADS-B Problems Cause Cancelled Flights

Something strange has been going on in the friendly skies over the last day or so. Flights are being canceled. Aircraft are grounded. Passengers are understandably upset. The core of the issue is GPS and ADS-B systems. The ADS-B system depends on GPS data to function properly, but over this weekend a problem with the quality of the GPS data has disrupted normal ADS-B features on some planes, leading to the cancellations.

What is ADS-B and Why Is It Having Trouble?

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) is a communication system used in aircraft worldwide. Planes transmit location, speed, flight number, and other information on 1090 MHz. This data is picked up by ground stations and eventually displayed on air traffic controller screens. Aircraft also receive this data from each other as part of the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS).

ADS-B isn’t a complex or encrypted signal. In fact, anyone with a cheap RTL-SDR can receive the signal. Aviation buffs know how cool it is to see a map of all the aircraft flying above your house. Plenty of hackers have worked on these systems, and we’ve covered that here on Hackaday. In the USA, the FAA will effectively require all aircraft to carry ADS-B transponders by January 1st, 2020. So as you can imagine, most aircraft already have the systems installed.

The ADS-B system in a plane needs to get position data before it can transmit. These days, that data comes from a global satellite navigation system. In the USA, that means GPS. GPS is currently having some problems though. This is where Receiver autonomous integrity monitoring (RAIM) comes in. Safety-critical GPS systems (those in planes and ships) cross-check their current position. If GPS is sending degraded or incorrect data, it is sent to the FAA who displays it on their website. The non-precision approach current outage map is showing degraded service all over the US Eastern seaboard, as well as the North. The cause of this signal degradation is currently unknown.

What Hardware is Affected?

GPS isn’t down though — you can walk outside with your cell phone to verify that. However, it is degraded. How a plane’s GPS system reacts to that depends on the software built into the GPS receiver. If the system fails, the pilots will have to rely on older systems like VOR to navigate. But ADS-B will have even more problems. An aircraft ADS-B system needs position data to operate.  If you can’t transmit your position information, air traffic controllers need to rely on old fashioned radar to determine position. All of this adds up to a safety of flight problem, which means grounding the aircraft.

Digging through canceled flight lists, one can glean which aircraft are having issues. From the early reports, it seems like Bombardier CRJ 700 and 900 have problems. Folks on Airliners.net are speculating that any aircraft with Rockwell Collins flight management systems are having problems.

This is not a small issue, there are hundreds or thousands of canceled flights. The FAA set up a teleconference to assess the issue. Since then, the FAA has issued a blanket waiver to all affected flights. They can fly, but only up to 28,000 feet.

This is a developing story, and we’ll be keeping an eye on it. Seeing how the industry handles major problems is always educational, and there will be much to learn in the coming days.

Improving A Cheap Frequency Counter With GPS

Frequency counters are useful tools for anyone that finds themselves regularly working with time-variant signals. There are a huge range available, from cheap eBay specials to expensive lab-grade hardware. [itakeyourphoto] had a counter on the lower end of the cost spectrum, and decided to make some improvements with the help of GPS (Youtube link, embedded below).

The fundamental weakness of a cheap frequency counter is usually the internal reference against which all other signals are measured. The more accurate this is, the more accurate the counter will be. [itakeyourphoto] determined that a great way to generate a reasonably good reference frequency was by using a uBlox GPS module. Once locked on to satellites, it can use a numerically controlled oscillator to output any frequency up to 15MHz with good accuracy.

The cheap frequency counter in question used a 13 MHz internal reference, so the uBlox module was programmed to match this. [itakeyourphoto] reports that it compares favorably to his higher-end GPS-disciplined oscillators, displaying very little drift or other aberrations.

We see plenty of clocks using GPS for its accurate time, but we’ve seen projects that attempt to go even further than that, too. Video after the break.

[Thanks to jafinch78 for the tip!]

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Tracking Stolen Bikes With Narrowband IoT

For his entry into the 2019 Hackaday Prize, [Marin Vukosav] is working on an ambitious project to create a small GPS tracking device which utilizes Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) for long range communications. Rather than using a GSM modem which would suck the batteries dry in short order, NB-IoT can theoretically maintain a connection within a 10 to 15 kilometer range while keeping the energy consumption low enough that the tracker could go up to a year before needing to be recharged.

At this point, the hardware is still in the proof of concept phase. [Marin] is using an Arduino with a GPS shield and a SIM7000 NB-IoT module to experiment with the concept, but ultimately says he wants to shrink the hardware down to the point it could fit inside of a bike light. Looking even farther ahead, he’d like to make deals with bike manufacturers so the module could be integrated into the frame itself, where a thief wouldn’t be able to access it at all.

Of course, nothing says this technology has to be limited to bikes. If [Marin] can get it small enough, and reach even half of his goal battery life, he’d have a very compelling product on his hands. Who wouldn’t want to add something like this to their long-range drone in case it gets lost?

There’s still a long way to go on this project, and it’s not all hardware. [Marin] will also have to create the software side of things, a site where you can register your tracker and be able to view its near real-time position on the map. It’s a lot of work, especially if you’re planning on turning it into a commercial product, and we’re very interested to follow along and see where the project goes throughout the year.

This GPS Speedometer Hangs Off Your Handlebars

If you can ride a bike with no handlebars, no handlebars, no handlebars, you can do just about anything. You can take apart a remote control, and you can almost put it back together. You can listen in on a two meter repeater and you can build a GPS module speedometer. That’s what [Jeremy Cook] did with just a few parts, a little 3D design, and some handy zip ties to hold it onto the handlebars, the handlebars.

The electronics for this build are relatively simple, based on an Arduino Pro Mini because that’s just about the smallest readily available development board you’ll be able to find. To this is a LiPo, a LiPo charging circuit, a GPS module, and a single RGB LED. The code gets some data from the GPS module and figures out a speed. This is then translated into a color — red, yellow, or green depending on whether you’re stationary, below 5 km/h, or above 5 km/h.

All these electronics are stuffed into a 3D-printed enclosure. The majority of the enclosure is printed in black, with a translucent top that serves as a great diffuser for the LED. Just two zip ties hold this GPS speedometer onto the handlebars, and from the video below, everything looks great. The GPS module does take some time to get data at first, but that’s a common problem with GPS units that have been powered off for a few days. If only someone made a GPS module that could keep time with no metronome, with no metronome.

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GPS Self-Adjusting Clock With An E-Ink Display

If you mention a clock that receives its time via radio, most people will think of one taking a long wave signal from a station such as WWVB, MSF, or DCF77. A more recent trend however has been for clocks that set themselves from orbiting navigation satellites, and an example comes to us from [KK99].  It’s a relatively simple hardware build in that it is simply an Arduino Nano, GPS module, and e-ink display module wired together, but it provides an interesting exercise in running through the code required for a GPS clock.

It does however give us a chance to remember the story from last year surrounding WWVB, as a budget proposal last year mooted the prospect of the closure of the Fort-Collins-based time signal transmitter. Were that to happen an estimated 50 million American clocks would lose their reference, and while their owners could always update them manually, there will always be time-based systems to which that won’t be applied for whatever reason.  Europeans meanwhile are safe in their time transmissions for now , but in case they think they have their mains grid to fall back on it’s worth remembering the time they lost six seconds.

GPS satellite image: USAF [Public domain].