At a talk delivered on board the HQS Wellington to the Honourable Company of Master Mariners and guests, Dr Ramsey Faragher, once described as the ‘real life Q’, led a captivated audience through the many failings of the navigation systems we have become so reliant on. One of the more recognisable faults, was the idea of Global Positioning System (GPS) spoofing, which has been highlighted within the superyacht industry before. But what may be less recognisable are the cause and the solution.

“GPS was designed for one specific purpose, so that American nuclear submarines could pop up, find out where they were quickly and fire ballistic missiles as Russia,” Faragher said. He explained that two GPS signals exist, the coarse acquisition code and the precise code. The coarse acquisition code, a basic, unencrypted code was created so that the military could lock onto the precise (encrypted) military code. It is the unprotected coarse code that the public, and therefore the superyacht industry, uses to navigate. 

US nuclear submarine

The lack of encryption for public GPS signals means that anyone can build (or buy) a GPS spoofing device capable of disrupting innocent civilian GPS receivers. A spoofed GPS receiver would gather false information and - as is well documented - may cause even the expensive systems on board a superyacht to falter.

The White Rose of Drachs experiment in which Tod Humphreys and his team successfully changed the course of the 65m motoryacht without any on board devices or personnel being aware is the classic example.

However, there is hope in sight.

The European Union is currently in the process of rolling out its own Global Positioning Satellite System known as ‘Galileo’. While it will be a freely available – and spoofable - public service like its predecessors, “Galileo is going to have a version with encryption for civilian signals if you are willing to pay for it,” explained Faragher, building on his experienced conclusion that “those who are good at security, know they are good at security, and they will make you pay for it.”

Galileo constellation

The signals from the costly version will be stronger, more accurate and theoretically impossible to spoof, unless the encryption key falls in to the wrong hands. The fallibility of humans within the system is what Faragher refers to as “the human layer”.

A major benefit of the Galileo service when compared to the US-controlled GPS or the Russian-controlled GLONASS systems is that it will not be run by the military and will provide a public encryption service. Both the US and Russia retain the right to shut down their systems in times of emergency, and while Galileo will provide the EU with similar power but, the composition of the federation will make the chances far less likely.

With the power of hindsight and a wealth of research and development the Galileo system is also planning to provide features that the antecedent alternatives do not. Most notably a two-way search and rescue function will exist. This function will not only transmit distress signals to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre but it will also inform the distressed party that their signal has been received and that help is on its way. Galileo’s first services will be open to the public in 2016 but will not be fully operational until 2020.