Europe calls time on ship navigation scheme despite risks at sea

LONDON (Reuters) - A British-led initiative to create a back-up to satellite navigation systems for ships has been pulled after failing to garner interest from other European countries, despite its proponents pointing to the growing risk of disasters at sea.

Cargo ships are seen as they sail across the English Channel with the French coast on the horizon, from Dover in Britain, January 9, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Vessels increasingly rely on devices that employ satellite signals to find a location or keep exact time, including the Global Positioning System (GPS). Paper charts are used less frequently due to a loss of traditional skills among seafarers.

Experts say GPS is vulnerable to signal loss from solar weather effects or radio and satellite interference or deliberate jamming, which South Korea experienced from North Korea in recent years.

The General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland (GLA) have pioneered a radio-based back-up prototype called eLoran that would provide alternative position and timing signals for navigation, but faced a hard sell in other European countries, which are needed for a signal network.

France, Norway, Germany and Denmark have closed their transmitters.

George Shaw of the GLA cited “cost-related” issues in Europe for pulling the project, leading the GLA to start decommissioning stations in Britain.

“In Europe, navigation is becoming less and less safe,” Shaw said. “We see larger ships and the competition for sea space is intense.”

“Getting high-integrity precise navigation into ports and around obstacles at sea is becoming ever more important and we cannot rely on GNSS (global navigation satellite systems) alone to do that,” he said.

France and other countries were meant to maintain and upgrade older radio transmitter stations called Loran-C, which date back decades, for eLoran to gain momentum.

French and German government sources said they did not need or use eLoran, pointing to Europe’s satellite navigation system Galileo. A German official said Galileo offered an encrypted navigation signal and “maximal protection” against manipulation. An official from Denmark said the country had opted out.

Norway’s Ministry of Transport and Communication said eLoran was “outdated and had very few users”, adding that lighthouses, markers, and radar beacons provided sufficient navigation safety in waters near the shore.

“Further out from the coast, the risk of collisions and of running aground is considerably smaller. In these waters, it’s the Norwegian Coastal Administration’s opinion that a ship’s radar constitutes sufficient backup.”

In contrast, South Korea and Russia - which had received previous GLA assistance - are pressing ahead with their versions of eLoran, Shaw said. The United States was also working on a version.

In late January, the U.S. Air Force said there were GPS timing disruptions after a satellite was removed that may have caused timing issues over several hours for global users.

The GLA had previously recorded incidents involving hours of signal disruptions on ships off Britain’s coast.

Martyn Thomas, chair of the UK Royal Academy of Engineering’s GNSS working group, said it was easy to purchase GPS simulators that can “fool GPS equipment into giving the wrong coordinates”, known as spoofing.

“Any of the satellite navigation systems such as Galileo ... are all extremely vulnerable firstly to jamming and increasingly to spoofing,” Thomas said. “That raises security questions.”

Additional reporting by Terje Solsvik in Oslo, Cyril Altmeyer in Paris, Tina Bellon in Berlin and Alexander Tange in Copenhagen; Editing by Jan Harvey