Virtually unheard of just a decade ago, GPS (global positioning system) has become indispensable in agriculture. Now the service may be threatened by an emerging technology in the United States.
LightSquared, a U.S. broadband company, plans to introduce a new network into the American marketplace later this year, but is currently battling opponents who are concerned the service will interrupt GPS satellites. On June 23, LightSquared executives faced off in Washington against high-level officials from several state departments, including Transportation and Defence.
“LightSquared technology is going to come from satellite as well. These are going to be two satellites near each other, as near as you can be in space and they’re going to have not the exact same technology or frequency, but close enough that it worries people,” said Hart Macklin, vice-president of technology for IPQUBE, a Prairie-based high-tech television company.
“Remember how with television, before we had cable, you might see a little bit of Channel 2 and Channel 3 mixed together? This is what we are talking about.”
In response to the widespread concerns, LightSquared unveiled a plan to use a different frequency farther away from that used by GPS. However, many fear it will not be enough to entirely prevent interruptions.
“They haven’t tested it yet because putting up a satellite and getting it wrong can cost you hundreds of millions of dollars. But they’re saying there’s a danger that when LightSquared turns the lights on up there, GPS technology is going to have a problem. And if that happens, and it’s too late to fix it, then what?” said Macklin.
LightSquared isn’t making any moves on Canada – yet. And until it does, Dr. Gerard Lachappelle, a geomatics engineering professor at the University of Calgary, says GPS service in Canada should remain unaffected.
“It is indeed a very big issue and they have a lot of concerns because this would affect GPS in a lot of places in the U.S.,” he said. However, bringing the LightSquared system into Canada would require approval from Industry Canada and it may not be allowed.
“So a problem in the U.S. would not necessarily affect Canada,” said Lachappelle.
GPS spurred the advancement of precision farming. The technology enables producers to selectively target very precise targets on a field. Improved control over the application of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers have helped to reduce expenses, increase yield and have improved environmental stewardship.
Michael Bevans, project engineer with the Alberta Agricultural Technology Centre, says the average farmer has already invested between $30,000 and $40,000 into GPS technology.
“GPS uptake by farmers is a real trend. There’s no doubt this is a very real concern,” he said.
The U.S. military created GPS, launching the first GPS satellite in 1978. By 1995, an additional 23 satellites were added to the system, which orbit around the Earth once every 12 hours, 12 miles from the surface of the planet. The satellites send radio signals to Earth with their precise location at any given time. Those signals are read by GPS receivers on the Earth’s surface, and the receivers can then analyze the data from several different satellites, enabling the receivers to determine their own precise location, elevation and speed.
The private sector wasn’t able to access the technology until 2000, when the U.S. military stopped intentionally camouflaging the signals.
Airplanes now rely on GPS, and the service has become nearly equally important in all methods of commercial transportation. The agriculture industry rapidly saw the potential of GPS and it has seen rapid uptake, especially since the advent of high-clearance sprayers.
“That was a real necessity when they came in. Previously, people had used foam markers and paper droppers and things like that trying to mark the spray limits,” said Les Hill of the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute.
America’s Federal Communications Commission is responsible for ultimately giving LightSquared a green light and has asked the company to compile a report on how its technology might go forward without affecting GPS. A decision is due June 30.
“I am personally convinced that it will not go through because the U.S. military is starting to weigh in heavily on this and that will be a big factor,” Lachappelle said. “And frankly, if this were to affect GPS, it’s the farming community, construction, the geomatics community – it’s huge.”
“Frankly,ifthisweretoaffectGPS,it’s thefarmingcommunity,construction,the geomaticscommunity–it’shuge.”
– DR. GERARD LACHAPPELLE, UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY