i-GPS plan stumbles on Capitol Hill

DOD’s initiative for novel satellite navigation concept could be short-lived

Congressional doubts and disagreements between the Air Force and Defense Department have stalled a potentially breakthrough technology called i-GPS that could bring significant improvements to satellite navigation by 2010.

The House Armed Services Committee zeroed out DOD’s $81 million request for a new generation of Global Positioning System technology that Boeing is developing. Meanwhile, Air Force officials question whether the system, which fuses signals from GPS satellites with those from Iridium satellites, could even work, said a DOD official who requested anonymity.

“There’s a substantial difference of opinion” between John Young, the Pentagon’s director of Defense research and engineering, and the Air Force, the source said.

The Air Force’s concerns center on the government’s plans to field a fleet of next-generation GPS satellites, dubbed GPS-III, observers say. If i-GPS works as promised, it could supplant many of the initial capabilities GPS-III is expected to deliver when it is fielded some time after 2013.

Boeing will try to answer the i-GPS questions this month as it prepares for the first, real-world demonstration of the technology June 20, company spokesman Tom Koehler said. So far, researchers have relied on computer simulations to test the technology and have made some of the results available to DOD experts.

Those test results led to the controversy, DOD sources said.

Many at DOD believe Boeing’s upcoming test could put an end to all doubts about the feasibility of i-GPS — or kill the military’s involvement with it altogether. “You can’t argue with data,” one official said.

Even if the tests prove successful, lawmakers remain unconvinced. When the House Armed Services Committee denied all funding for i-GPS last month, members argued that the technology is not sufficiently proven.

DOD’s budget request was distributed between two pots. The Air Force research and development budget request for fiscal 2008 included almost $71 million for the development of Iridium-capable GPS handsets. According to Pentagon budget documents, officials have scheduled production and fielding of the devices for 2010 and 2011.

DOD officials also put $10 million into a budget line item for special operations aviation technology. That money would pay for an i-GPS proof-of-concept study in 2008, according to the budget documents.

Young is leading the charge to get i-GPS into the hands of warfighters on the ground. The technology would bring more diversity to the military’s communications and navigation portfolio and make DOD less vulnerable to a potentially crippling attack on GPS satellites or signals, he said.

DOD officials recently met with House Armed Services Committee staff members to address what Young called misinformation about i-GPS.

“We were able to update the committee on recent initial testing [that] demonstrated that i-GPS can indeed provide centimeter-class accuracy in the presence of aggressive jamming,” he said.

After the House passed the Defense Authorization bill May 17, the Senate Armed Services Committee moved to cut the program. The panel decided to grant funds only for the $10 million proof-of-concept study but not the receiver-development program, committee spokeswoman Tara Andringa said.

The full Senate is expected to debate the Defense Authorization bill in June. A conference committee will ultimately resolve the differences in the two versions.
If the military has to pass on the technology, Iridium and Boeing executives will look for customers elsewhere.

“We believe there’s a significant commercial applicability of i-GPS,” said Greg Ewert, Iridium’s executive vice president. 
Beyond the militaryIridium and Boeing executives believe there is a great demand for the capabilities of the i-GPS system in the commercial sector. Iridium’s executive vice president, Greg Ewert, said the companies are targeting the construction and aviation industries, among others. Ewert estimates it could take a year before receivers for the system could be available on the commercial market.

He said the two companies have yet to determine whether they will manufacture their own receivers, or whether they will enable other companies to build devices based on an open architecture.

— Sebastian Sprenger

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