Plotting the Course for the Future of Maritime Navigation

For centuries, mariners have utilised myriad assets to navigate the world’s seas and oceans safely. Compasses, radar, echo sounders, Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, signals, the ship’s whistle and the very skies above have all been used to navigate weather, geography and human factors to ensure safe passage.


Back in 2017 a concerned captain in the Black Sea faced a curious, but no longer, unusual problem. His navigation systems erroneously reported that he was 25 nautical miles away from his actual location. Thankfully, this potentially ruinous issue wasn’t exactly difficult to spot as the bridge equipment was attempting to convince the captain that he was actually at a land-based location near to Gelendyhik airport in Russia.


A simple case of faulty equipment? Not quite. It eventually became known that a further 20 vessels in the locale were receiving the same confusing information. As they would have used different GPS equipment, how could they all be witnessing the same anomalies?


The highly respected U.S non-profit the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation subsequently worked with maritime data and analytics company Windward Ltd. to explore the issue in greater depth. They diagnosed that the incident related to the intentional ‘spoofing’ of the GPS signal – someone had purposefully interfered with it to cause the system to provide incorrect location information.


Subsequent research in April 2019 by the Centre for Advanced Defense (C4AD) further underlined the prevalence of such disruptions, suggesting that 1,311 civilian ships had been affected in ten locations over the study period, with 9,883 individual incidents reported or detected, the majority of which took place in Crimea, the Black Sea, Syria and Russia.


Such possibilities present a severe threat to a system that is essential to seafarers of all types. Novel threats require novel approaches – so what to do to bring about new levels of systems-level resilience in marine navigation?


In January 2019 we began the MarRINav project, funded by the European Space Agency, we wanted to address the issues highlighted by previous work from the General Lighthouse Authorities of the United Kingdom and Ireland (GLA) and in documents such as the UK Government’s Blackett Report on GNSS Vulnerabilities and the London Economics report on UK economic impact of the loss of the GNSS. Our goal was to understand the position, navigation and timing needs of maritime operators, consider and analyse how current infrastructure met those needs and propose a credible solution to address any gaps in resilience or integrity.


From the earlier studies there were clear indications that many factors, including and in addition to spoofing, could have a substantial impact on many facets of life in the UK. A five day outage of GNSS in the UK could have an economic impact of as much as £5Bn with around 20% of that being directly related to maritime endeavours. Such figures are hardly surprising when you consider that 95% of goods are transported by sea and that some of the world’s busiest shipping routes pass through UK waters. Of course, shipping is just one slice of the maritime pie. The UK has seen an offshore wind generation capacity increase by a factor of eight over the past 10 years. Then there are considerations of the growth in aquaculture not to mention the appetite to explore and exploit the potential for autonomous vessels. UK sea space is busier than ever before and on a trend that shows increasing levels of traffic density, complexity and challenge.


The case for an in-depth review was clear, the MarRINav consortium was assembled and embarked on a journey of research and discovery that has revealed and documented a wealth of insights.


The first deliverable which qualified the maritime user need frames the whole project by describing the levels of accuracy, resilience and integrity that were required by a host of end users across a broad spectrum of marine, maritime and blue economy stakeholders.


Richard Greaves, MarRINav Project Director for NLA International commented: “As the UK EEZ gets busier and marine traffic relies more and more on technology, it’s essential that technology is itself reliable and failure risks are mitigated. Maritime operators must have confidence that their vessels are exactly where they think they are, and when. The MarRINav project has brought together experts from different disciplines and recommends an economic system-of-systems that will give them that confidence.”


Those maritime operator’s needs were analysed against current PNT infrastructure to assess and understand where there were opportunities to improve resilience and integrity. Deliverables two and three describe this work and the gaps and challenges that the current PNT infrastructure create across the maritime domain. This guided the project team thinking towards the technologies that could be applied, to varying degrees of success, in addressing those challenges. Deliverable four captured these technologies which, not limited to space based solutions, incorporated ship based systems, regional and wide area systems. Through this analysis it became clear that there was no silver bullet in a single system and that a system of systems would be required to best address all the challenges.


A conceptual architecture was produced within deliverable five with the integration of that architecture and an outline development plan to complement it in deliverables six and seven. This proposed solution was assessed by a cost benefit analysis which demonstrates a substantial and positive benefit to cost ratio, captured in deliverable eight.


The MarRINav project deals with both a complex and highly variable operating environment as well as a complex set of technologies, underpinned by rigorous scientific and mathematical analysis. To highlight the key points from the project and to make the outcomes accessible to widest possible audience deliverable nine along with several summary documents have also been produced.


All of the above deliverables and reports are available to view and download from this website.


The results in the MarRINav reports are now made publicly available and whilst they will inform a wide range of stakeholders, including UK Government, Deputy National Security Adviser, Department for Transport and the UK Space Agency, as well as the European Space Agency we also hope they will be a useful resource.


The MarRINav team will now move forwards to phase two of the project and test the viability of the solutions that have been proposed through the development and implementation of a testing and validation phase.