Magnetic Navigation 2022 – Free from GNSS?
In a world where GPS and other GNSS signals can be easily denied or, worse, spoofed, interest in other forms of navigation has rebounded.
Imagine being able to locate yourself just inches away with your mobile phone – deep underground. Or inside a metal structure. Or underwater (assuming you can keep your gear dry).
No satellite signals, no Wi-Fi telemetry, no inertial system. Just the ambient magnetic flux that constantly surrounds us all. Everywhere.
It’s the vision AstraNav Vice President Martin Neill offered to the President’s National Advisory Council on Space Technologies, Positioning, Navigation and Timing in May.
Animals have used the earth’s magnetic field to find their way for millions of years. People have been using magnetic compasses for over a thousand. Until the advent of GPS, magnetic compasses were fundamental tools for air and sea navigation, especially when out of sight of easily recognizable landmarks.
Then GPS arrived and almost everyone’s eyes turned to space.
But in a world where GPS and other GNSS signals can be easily denied or, worse, spoofed, interest in other forms of navigation has rebounded. And because GPS has helped demonstrate the effectiveness of geospatial services, users also want these services to be more resilient and work in places that signals from space simply cannot reach.
According to Neil, “Our solution leverages inexpensive magnetometers, smartphones, machine learning, edge computing, and incredibly complex math to convert raw magnetic data into a source of ultra-accurate location data. These rRelatively recent technological developments allow us to bring things together for a major update to an age-old way of navigation and positioning.
Describing AstraNav as a software technology company, Neill said the company’s system is “hardware agnostic”. It can run on “pretty much anything that has a magnetometer. No additional hardware or external connectivity is required, and we can run on any existing operating system.
The company has retail, automotive and telecommunications partners validating the technology. They have also worked with a US Department of Defense (DOD) combatant commander to demonstrate the product, as well as Virginia Tech and its National Security Institute (VTNSI). Describing two real-world trials and boardroom use cases, he said, “This technology is real, and we’re doing it.”
Most previous magnetic navigation efforts relied on relatively low resolution maps. A plane could find its way safely across the ocean using available maps and likely find itself within a mile or two of an airport. Much higher resolution maps built through surveys and artificial intelligence are key to AstraNav’s centimeter accuracy with systems that continue to learn on their own.
Intellectual property is AstraNav’s main asset. “We have several patents filed and pending,” Neill said. “Our IP is what allows us to detect and analyze magnetic fields so finely, to develop maps and to use very low-cost magnetometers, like those in cell phones.”
Several people at the advisory board presentation expressed surprise that they hadn’t heard of the company and this capability before. “We’ve been busy establishing ourselves as a company, supporting our first commercial customers, and doing demonstrations for various people within DOD,” Neill explained. “This presentation is done through our release party. We’re very eager to get better known and look forward to explaining our capabilities one-on-one with potential users. »
Citing an abundance of proprietary material, Neill was unwilling to discuss many technical details during the public meeting. His short presentation, he said, was meant to raise awareness and stimulate interest.
The number of people present who, after the presentation, said they were eager to learn more showed that he had succeeded.
Dana A. Goward is president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation