Sun’s magnetic field could jinx GPS

Don’t blame the manufacturers — or even the gremlins — if your GPS system goes a little wonky in 2012.

It’s likely solar flares will wreak havoc with at least some systems this coming year as the sun flips its magnetic field, says Pam Wilson, a precision agriculture instructor with Assiniboine Community College.

“Basically the sun’s magnetic field flips every 11 years, and when it does, it sends out these charged particles,” Wilson said after her presentation at Ag Days. “These charged particles are basically big bundles of energy and they get thrown every direction.

“When they get thrown towards the earth they create radio signals and these radio signals interfere with the radio signals the satellites are sending out to our GPS receivers,” she said. “They actually mimic the radio signals so they’ll block the signals coming in from the GPS.”

Wilson said solar flares have also been known to interfere with television signals and cellphones.

Wilson said it has been 11 years since the last flip, so the technology in the field has likely improved. But she said it remains to be seen how much of an effect the sunspot activity will have in 2012.

“I’m curious how bad it’s going to be this time because last year people were having some issues, but not as many issues as they had a decade ago. I’m hoping it’s going to be better,” she said.

The solar flares can cause farmers to lose their GPS signal several times a day. “It could be for a minute, it could be for three hours,” she said. “In a high solar flare year, like this year will be, it could happen three times, it could happen five times a day. During a normal year it might happen once every 30 or 40 days.”

Users might also experience a higher DOP, which stands for dilution of precision, or a reduction in the performance accuracy of their system.

If farmers start to experience random outages, their first step would be to contact their supplier to see if a higher-quality antennae will correct the problem. If possible, borrow one to see if it helps before making an outright purchase, she said.

Wilson also told her Ag Days seminar that when things go wrong with GPS, 90 per cent of the time it’s related to either how the system was installed or calibrated. She said 70 per cent of the time it is due to improper calibration.

She advised farmers to take the time and go through the proper steps when calibrating their systems. If the dealer’s instructions aren’t detailed enough, there is plenty of information on proper calibration on the Internet.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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