Where would we be without the Global Positioning System? Well, without GPS I probably would not be at this hotel nice and early, waiting for a meeting to start. Forget the idiots who end up driving on train tracks or toppling over cliffs, for some of us SatNav has become not a car gadget but an essential tool for business life. Despite SatNav manufacturers sometimes getting things very wrong indeed, the honest truth is that without GPS I would, quite frankly, be paddling up a smelly dark brown creek without a canoe.
Which is why I was a little worried to hear that the US Government is a tad concerned that GPS as we know it could start turning pear-shaped from 2011 onwards. The GPS satellites are overseen by the US Air Force, the system is another of those awesome military inventions that somehow found a route into everyday civilian life. The US Air Force has been looking after the maintenance of the GPS network for the a couple of decades, since early on in the 1990's in fact.
Now the US Government Accountability Office has warned that a lack of proper investment, not least when it comes to replacing old satellites with new ones, means the world is facing that most unwanted and feared of things: GPS FAIL.
The GAO report to Congress states that it is "uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption." If that were not clear enough, how about this little warning regarding what might happen if new satellites are not acquired in time: "some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected."
Not that the US Government is sitting back doing nothing, it has committed some $2 billion on updating the decades old GPS network already. The trouble is, according to the GAO, that it has not managed the upgrade well and a combination of technical problems and budgetary over spending has delayed the process. A good example being the very first of the replacement birds which was meant to launch back at the start of 2007 but is still waiting to fly, the latest schedule being November.
So what might happen in the GPS FAIL scenario we are talking about here? Well, the whole system is unlikely to collapse and die totally. If it did the US military, along with other militaries around the world that rely upon the technology, would be left exposed without the recon and mapping systems so relied upon in modern warfare. But with some satellites likely to fail before they are replaced, the network will be short of birds and this will most likely mean coverage black spots and failed services to military and civilian users alike. It takes no less than 24 satellites to provide full global coverage, yet the GAO has warned that the current fleet of 31 birds could drop below the magic 24 during 2011 impacting upon accuracy.