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Study: Starlink could operate as GPS system

September 24, 2021

By Chris Forrester

A study from the Ohio State University and its ‘CARMEN’ project (Center for Automated Vehicles Research with Multimodal Assured Navigation) says that SpaceX’s Starlink broadband-by-satellite system could be used as an alternate supplier of a new global positioning system (GPS).

The CARMEN findings, shared at the Institute of Navigation GNSS annual meeting in St. Louis, may therefore provide a promising alternative to GPS.

The project’s researchers say they did not need assistance from SpaceX and did not have access to any of the data carried by the Starlink fleet, but did use information related to the satellite’s location and movement through space.

“We eavesdropped on the signal, and then we designed sophisticated algorithms to pinpoint our location, and we showed that it works with great accuracy,” said Zak Kassas, director at CARMEN. “And even though Starlink wasn’t designed for navigation purposes, we showed that it was possible to learn parts of the system well enough to use it for navigation.”

The study showed that by using Starlink’s signals they could pinpoint accuracy to about 7.7 metres. This, however, is not as good as today’s ‘normal’ GPS accuracy which is about 0.3 to 5 metres. But as the Starlink constellation grows then accuracy would improve.

There’s another key strategic benefit in the potential use of Starlink. Because they are closer to the ground than traditional GPS satellites they are less likely to be hacked or subject to interference.

The CARMEN work was funded by the US Office of Naval Research, the US Department of Transportation and the (US) National Science Foundation.

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