View from North Oscura Peak, New Mexico, Master site for Non-GPS Based Positioning System test program
Truth on the Range
USAF's New Reference System
Typical Rack-Mounted UHARS System
When is close, close enough? That depends. If you’re referring to a friendly game of horseshoes the answer could be several feet. However if you’re referring to the United States Air Force’s new-generation “gold standard” for GPS test capability — the Ultra High Accuracy Reference System — the answer is mere centimeters. This article describes the operational requirements, design, installation, and demonstration testing of the non-GPS–based positioning system (NGBPS) subsystem of the UHARS for the Central Inertial and GPS Test Facility.
A next-generation “truth” reference system for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) — the Ultra High Accuracy Reference System (UHARS) — is currently under development by the 746th Test Squadron (746 TS) at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
The 746 TS is the Central Inertial and GPS Test Facility (CIGTF), chartered to provide test and evaluation of guidance, navigation, and navigation warfare (NAVWAR) systems for the United States Department of Defense. The UHARS is designed to meet the increasingly accurate reference requirements for future navigation and guidance systems, providing improved position and velocity accuracies up to seven times better than the current truth system.
The CIGTF Reference System (CRS) presently serves as the truth reference system for 746th TS test activities and has provided support for a plethora of high-accuracy navigation tests over the last decade. CRS is arguably the most accurate reference system available for flight and ground testing today. However, with forecasted advances in navigation technologies on the immediate horizon, CRS will soon no longer be accurate enough to serve as truth against increasingly precise systems under test.
With these increased requirements expected in the near future, therefore, CIGTF undertook the specification, evaluation, and contracting for a next-generation truth reference. This article describes the operational requirements, design, installation, and demonstration testing of our selected system, UHARS.
Search for a New Truth
The system will provide a highly accurate reference solution for airborne and land-based test vehicles in electronic warfare environments where modernized and legacy GPS signals are jammed from friendly or hostile systems. The system must be appropriately sized and constructed for use on board multiple test-beds, including current and future test aircraft and ground vehicles.
A key subsystem of UHARS is the Non-GPS Based Positioning System (NGBPS), which is capable of providing sub-meter position accuracy in a GPS-denied (jamming) environment (see Figure 1). The 746 TS selected a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) system developed by the Locata Corporation to provide this NGBPS capability.
The ground-based COTS system had previously been adopted in the private sector for industrial applications in areas where GPS is unreliable — for machine control in open-cut mining, for example — or where GPS is completely unavailable, such as indoors for warehouse automation.
However, meeting the demanding 746 TS UHARS “truth reference” accuracy, range, and dynamic requirements necessitated a major upgrade of Locata’s existing commercial capability. Therefore, in 2010 the 746 TS awarded Locata a contract to improve its commercial system’s capability to meet UHARS NGBPS performance requirements.
Locata had to demonstrate the following enhanced capabilities in the NGBPS:
The sidebar, “Improving on a COTS System,” describes these enhancements in greater detail.
Numerous articles and studies have been published that explain the invention, development, and real-world performance of the unique time-locked synchronization technology that is critical for recreating a GPS-like system on the ground.
The sidebar, “Time for Precise Positioning,” provides a brief overview of this technology, and more extensive discussions of the commercial NGBPS system and its applications can be found in the articles in the Additional Resources section near the end of this article.
To enable the COTS system to be used in a large wide-area aircraft-based UHARS system, Locata was contracted to deliver the following essential technical requirements:
The ultimate goal of the NGBPS is to achieve a standalone, receiver postprocessed positioning accuracy of 10 centimeters/axis — an extremely demanding specification for a land vehicle, let alone an aircraft traveling at more 550 kilometers per hour (kph) in the complete absence of GPS.
The Road to White Sands
A number of flight trials were flown in this network before the CDR, using a twin-engined aircraft organized by Professor Chris Rizos’ Satellite Navigation & Positioning Laboratory (SNAP Lab) within the School of Surveying & Spatial Information Systems, at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). The UNSW aircraft had been fitted-out with a Locata receiver and a complement of GPS, inertial, and other sensors that functioned as a truth reference system to compare against Locata-derived solutions.
These initial flights proved that the NGBPS performance requirements could be met in the area covered by the six sites of the Australian network, and Locata officially passed the CDR on August 19, 2011. For details of the successful CDR results, see the paper by A. Trunzo et alia in Additional Resources presented by 746th TS authors at the September 2011 ION GNSS conference in Portland, Oregon.
The preliminary Australian flight tests adequately demonstrated the enhanced NGBPS performance for the contract CDR. However, due to the limited number of sites Locata could physically access for installation of its network around the Snowy Mountains Airport, the flights were constrained to a smaller area than that required by the USAF for operational use. Further, the unpressurized UNSW aircraft could not be used to test the much higher operational altitudes and flight dynamics required by the UHARS NGBPS.
A key milestone following the successful completion of the CDR for this contract, therefore, challenged Locata to demonstrate its system on the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico, USA, where the 746 TS often conducts GPS jamming tests. The demonstration was dubbed the Locata NGBPS Tech Demo.
Deploying the Tech Demo sounds simple enough in principle. However, due to weather delays, limited aircraft availability, other projects requiring access to the range, and many other issues well outside the team’s control, the White Sands Missile Range was only available for such a test during the last week of October — a mere four months after the CDR meetings. Schedule therefore became an urgent and major factor.
Nonetheless, in those short four months, the team — comprised of members from Locata Corporation, 746 TS, the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), Advanced Logistics Corporation, and TMC Design Corporation — pulled together to plan and execute this crucially important test event.
Boots on the Ground
Despite the incredibly tight schedule, and overcoming what sometimes seemed insurmountable obstacles, in early October 2011 the team landed at White Sands ready to work and began the site erection process. The team had only two weeks to assemble, deploy, and perform check-out of 10 sites, with the last week of October reserved for flight testing.
The “Master” site was the first one assembled, at a location with significantly higher elevation than the other sites. Figure 2 depicts the layout of the NGBPS sites on a Google Earth image. After quite a bit of reconnaissance, analysis, and negotiation between the 746 TS, Locata, and AFIT, the exact location for the Master site was selected — at North Oscura Peak (NOP), towards the top northeastern edge of WSMR.
This high-elevation site, shown in these photographs, consisted of two transmit antennas, one high-gain dish receive antenna, and one GPS antenna, all mounted on a concrete wall approximately 20 feet high. This location provided line-of-sight to all the prospective lower-level NGBPS sites on the test range. A protective enclosure contained the transceiver, meteorological data collection equipment, amplifiers, power converters, and a prime power source that rounded out the site setup.
Once the network’s master site was established and tested, the team was ready to divide and conquer the nine remaining (slave) sites.
Setting up all of the lower elevation sites proved to be a rather arduous and time consuming task. The Tech Demo site spanned an area of approximately 45 miles by 30 miles. Roads on the White Sands Missile Range are few and far between, which necessitated long back-and-forth trips to move from one site to another.
Locata’s standard commercial system has in-built capability for control and monitoring from a remote location using a modem, and this feature was used to ease deployment and testing in the Australian experimental wide-area system. However, the time constraints imposed on the Tech Demo simply made it impossible to arrange for the requisite communications approvals on the Range — and consequently the team clocked up many, many miles over the two-week period allocated to fielding and testing.
For a system of this size, it quickly became apparent to everyone that remote control capabilities would be an essential “must-have” feature for real-world deployment!
As the Tech Demo was never meant to be a permanent installation, the 746 TS required a very portable, field-deployable system that could be easily moved if need be. The system also had to be able to run off either grid or generator power, depending on what was available at suitable geographic sites on the Range.
Locata and the 746 TS, therefore, specified a Tech Demo NGBPS transceiver “slave” configuration that could be manufactured locally, set up by one person if necessary, and transported in a pickup truck. The resultant solution incorporated portable antenna masts and a single weather-proof metal enclosure — the “box” — that contained all the necessary electronics. Each of the nine “slave” sites consisted of two tripods which supported all transmit and receive antennas (see this photo).
Figure 3 shows an inside view of the box containing a transceiver, meteorological collection equipment, amplifiers, and power converters. The meteorological sensors and probes were grouped onto a separate small mast externally connected to the box, and power was provided by the most convenient source (either prime power where available, or a gas-powered generator in other locations).
At Home on the Range
Despite these and many other challenges, the team had all 10 sites, as well as the aircraft and three “rover” receiver locations, set up and ready on time for the October 24–30, 2011, flight trials.
One important item of note is that all the ground stations had the ability to collect meteorological data; unfortunately, the specialized version of the meteorological equipment for the aircraft did not arrive in time for the tests and, hence, could not be fitted to the test aircraft, a twin-engine C-12J, the military version of the Raytheon Beech 1900C. The lack of this equipment represented a distinct setback, as the tropospheric effects of the long ranges faced in this Tech Demo posed a particular concern to the navigation specialists on the Locata NGBPS team, who were focused on delivering centimeter-accurate position solutions.
To make up in part for the lack of aircraft-based meteorological data, the USAF arranged to launch weather balloons from the north end of WSMR at the start and end of each test, to at least provide some samples of pressure, temperature, and humidity conditions aloft. This data allowed Locata to assess the meteorological models used to derive tropospheric corrections.
Down to Business
In the end, the tests clearly demonstrated that for a future UHARS “truth reference” system, close may be good, but to put it in the words of one of America’s legendary gunman, Wyatt Earp, “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” And accuracy is what counted and was proved in this demonstration!
Tech Demo Data Collection. During the flight trials, approximately 15 hours of flight profile data were collected. The flight profiles were designed to test the performance of the Locata NGBPS system against the contract requirements. In order to achieve this, the test aircraft flew a number of different flight profiles at varying altitudes, speed, and time of day in order evaluate the performance of the Locata NGBPS system under different scenarios. Weather conditions during the flights varied from clear blue skies to heavy wind and rain, hail, and snow.
On the aircraft flights, data were logged from both the Locata receiver and the CRS pallet at a 10-hertz rate. Notably, the receiver collected measurement data that was time-aligned to the CRS data so that the effects of any aircraft motion would be insignificant when comparing solutions of the two systems.
On the ground, a high-precision GPS reference receiver logged data to allow differential GPS post-processing in the CRS navigation solution. Data from the meteorological ground sites were modulated on the Locata signals and logged at the Locata receiver on the aircraft. However, for redundancy, each meteorological station also logged data at a one-hertz rate, which could be downloaded after each flight sortie.
Following the flight trials, the Locata solution and CRS truth solution were postprocessed independently by Locata and the 746 TS personnel, respectively. Furthermore, Locata did not have access to the USAF navigation solutions until after their final Locata solutions were tendered to the Air Force for independent performance analysis.
However, to allow preliminary analysis of the system’s performance, Locata was provided with four small (approximately one-hour) samples of CRS truth solution data for initial comparison purposes. These USAF solution samples therefore did not count towards the final performance analysis undertaken by the 746 TS.
One of these CRS solution data samples supplied to Locata was collected during a flight sortie on Sunday, October 30, 2011. The comparison of the Locata and the USAF CRS-derived truth solution from this sample period is considered representative of typical NGBPS performance during the Tech Demo. We will discuss that comparison later in this article to illustrate the NGBPS performance against USAF-furnished positions.
As this issue went to press, analysis of the huge amount of data collected had just been completed by both the Air Force and Locata, and a complete final report on the Tech Demo had been submitted.
Locata NGBPS Tech Demo
All systems were then confirmed as ready for use in the defined flight profiles, and USAF pilots flew a total of eight sorties in the C-12J during seven consecutive days beginning on October 24. Predefined profiles were flown each day to record data for testing and to evaluate network performance. Flight times were staggered over various periods of each day to ensure data was collected in as many different diurnal, weather, and tropospheric conditions as possible.
The weather during that week was relatively benign, except for a fierce storm (lightning and hail on the range, and snow up at the high-elevation NOP master site) in the middle of the night on October 26. Astonishingly, despite the intense weather the test pilots still calmly flew their profiles, while those of us on the ground watched in amazement and shook our heads in disbelief at the professionalism on display. Test pilots are certainly in a league of their own!
The Locata receiver installed in the C-12J’s electronics rack had internal memory, backed up by disk storage on a notebook computer, to record measurement data while in flight for later, off-line analysis. Other collected data included logs from the transceivers, weather data collected at each transmitter site and by weather balloons, plus positioning data collected by the USAF from their CRS position reference system on the aircraft.
The nanosecond-accurate, time-locked synchronization worked well for the full duration of the Tech Demo. For the actual flight tests each day, the synchronized transceiver sites were authorized to transmit only during the time frames for the tests approved by WSMR. Because of the way the synchronization technology is managed in a network, Locata could control transmission of signals over the entire NGBPS network by simply turning the Master site’s transceiver on or off.
A “slave” transceiver will not transmit if it does not receive a time-locked reference signal; so, turning on the Master site’s transceiver commenced the synchronization process and subsequent transceiver signal transmissions throughout the whole network. Upon receiving the master signal, other transceivers generally required only 30 to 60 seconds to synchronize at the nanosecond level.
Due to real-world physical visibility constraints, the NGBPS has the capability to “cascade” the synchronization reference function from the Master site through a first slave transceiver to a second slave that is unable to see the Master transceiver.
Locata successfully demonstrated this synchronization cascading capability during tests on October 28. Throughout the Tech Demo, the entire 800 square-mile (2,000 square-kilometer) network achieved nanosecond-accurate synchronization within several minutes of the Master being activated and remained time-locked, even during severe weather, until turned off at the end of each test.
Sample Positioning Results — October 30 Flight Test
Consequently, a final report for the entire Tech Demo data set is not available at the time of writing. Nevertheless, enough data has been analyzed to give the NGBPS team confidence in the measured performance during the Tech Demo period.
A representative data set from Sunday, October 30, 2011 (Local time 10:09:18 – 10:47:30) can therefore be published here, as a typical example of the observed performance. The flight profile for this example data consists of three “Race Track” circuits at a flying height of approximately 25,000 feet above sea level and with an approximate aircraft speed of 195 knots.
Acquisition and Tracking Performance. Locata examined its receiver logs to determine when the receiver acquired the first signal with each flight, and the maximum range at which the receiver tracked a signal.
Locata’s analysis of the full data set over the period of the Tech Demo, shows that the average range for acquisition of the first signal from the network was 48.8 miles (78.5 kilometers). For this specific October 30 example, Figure 4 shows the tracking status of the first signal acquired, with green indicating when the signal is being tracked and red when it is not. Figure 3 indicates that, once the NGBPS started transmitting, the first signal on this day was acquired in 73 seconds at a range of 38.6 miles (62.2 kilometers). The maximum range at which the receiver tracked a signal was 40.9 miles (65.8 kilometers), which is well above the USAF’s 30-mile tracking requirements.
Flight Characteristics. For the example data from October 30, Figure 5 shows the racetrack pattern at 25,000 feet for three circuits flown at approximately 195 knots. The USAF solution (“Ref”) is shown in blue and the Locata code solution shown in red. The positions of the 10 transceiver sites are indicated by asterisks (*). Against the USAF reference solution, Figure 4 shows the code solution performance of the NGBPS with an overall 3dRMS difference of 0.25 meters.
Figures 6 and 7 present the aircraft roll, pitch, heading, velocity, and altitude as provided by the USAF reference solution. Importantly the attitude information allowed the USAF solution to be lever-arm corrected to the Locata receiver’s antenna.
Locata Carrier Solution Performance. The Locata 10-hertz carrier solution was postprocessed entirely independent of access to the USAF reference solution. The processing methodology used a forward and reverse extended Kalman filter (EKF), incorporating tropospheric corrections derived from available meteorological data to solve for position, velocity, acceleration, “residual” tropospheric scale factor, and signal ambiguities using geometry change.
Figure 8 shows the number of signals tracked by the receiver and used in the EKF solution along with the total number of transceiver sites available (note that each transceiver is designed to transmit four ranging signals simultaneously).
All 10 transceiver sites were used for the entire period and 35–36 signals were used in the EKF solution. Figure 9 shows the PDOP as well as component DOPs in east, north and vertical. The maximum PDOP for the flight profile is approximately 3, while the worst DOP is approximately 2.7 in the vertical component.
Figure 10 shows the difference in east, north, and height between the USAF CRS-derived reference solution and the Locata carrier solution, and Table 1 contains the respective RMS statistics. The RMS values in the east and north components are 0.06 meter, whilst the RMS in height is just over twice that of the horizontal at 0.15 meter. These values correlate with the larger DOP in the vertical component than the horizontal components. The overall and 3D positioning accuracy meets the USAF contract requirement set for NGBPS-level performance — better than 18 centimeters (3dRMS) when the position dilution of precision (PDOP) is less than 3.
Over an 18-month period, Locata enhanced their COTS technology to work in aircraft applications that covered much larger areas — and, hence, far longer ranges — than previously encountered in commercial industrial operations. Throughout the NGBPS Tech Demo conducted in October 2011, the NGBPS system synchronized flawlessly over the entire period of the trials, during which approximately 15 hours of NGBPS test data were recorded by the 746 TS for later comparison against the USAF’s current CRS truth-reference system.
Data processing has just been completed at press time, and the preliminary position analysis and data reviews seem to indicate promising results. When compared to the specifications set forth in the contract, it appears that NGBPS tracking and positioning requirements have not only been met but exceeded on many points.
NOTE: Distribution Statement A: Approved for public release. Distribution is unlimited.
ManufacturersThe network (LocataNet) of synchronized transceivers that create the Non-GPS–Based Positioning System (NGBPS) are LocataLites, designed and manufactured by the Locata Corporation, Griffith ACT, Australia. TimeLoc is Locata’s proprietary method that wirelessly synchronizes LocataLites. The Tech Demo NGBPS LocataLite transceiver “slave boxes” were built and configured by TMC Design Corporation, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA. Locata worked with Cooper Antennas Ltd. of Marlow in Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom, to produce an aircraft-certified version of Locata’s quadrifilar helix antenna design. The meteorological stations were manufactured by Vaisala Oyj, Helsinki, Finland. The amplifiers are manufactured by Mini-Circuits of Brooklyn, NY, USA.
Desiree L. Craig
Desiree L. Craig is the chief program manager for the 746th Test Support Squadron and the 46th Test Group at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. The 46th Test Group provides several world-premier test capabilities including the Flight Test Squadron, Holloman High Speed Test Track, the National Radar Cross Section Test Facility, the Survivability and Landing Gear Test Facilities and the Central Inertial and GPS Test Facility. In her current position, she oversees six improvement and modernization (I&M) programs for the 46th Test Group, including the Non-GPS Based Positioning System Phase of the Ultra High Accuracy Reference System program.
CEO, Nunzio Gambale: “No author is singled out here by Locata because, over the years required to pull off this milestone achievement, literally every person in the company in both Australia and the USA contributed in some way to our success. The countless hours and incredible effort were amply rewarded, however, when our network was fired up at White Sands and worked flawlessly across thousands of square kilometers. To see Locata become the key component in the USAF’s new “gold standard for positioning” puts a smile on our faces and a spring in our step that nothing else could ever replace. We are all incredibly proud of what we have invented, engineered, and delivered.”
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