By Joanna Plucinska, Valerie Insinna and James Pearson
LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The aviation industry will press regulators this week for urgent action to help tackle GPS “spoofing” amid a surge in such activity, which can send commercial airliners off-course, due to conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East.
International trade body IATA and European regulator EASA have organised a meeting in Cologne, Germany, on Thursday that will bring together airlines, plane manufacturers and aviation technology firms, as well as national and regional regulatory bodies, to discuss the issue.
Spoofing might involve one country’s military sending false Global Positioning System (GPS) signals to an enemy plane or drone to hinder its ability to function.
The problem for commercial aviation comes if that false signal is then picked up by a GPS receiver in a passenger plane, potentially confusing the pilot and air traffic control.
And there are signs that’s becoming more common.
In December, aviation advisory body OPSGROUP flagged a surge in GPS spoofing affecting private and commercial jets around the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran and Israel, and the Black Sea.
AirBaltic, which flies out of Eastern Europe’s Baltic region, has also reported an increase in spoofing, as well as jamming of signals.
While technology exists to mitigate such activity, it is mostly confined to military users or those who can afford to buy it privately, like business jet owners.
Certifying new technologies for civil aircraft can take up to a decade, industry officials said. But with spoofing increasing, many told Reuters there is no time to wait.
“The big challenge you always have with commercial airliners is the certification time,” said Xavier Orr, CEO of Advanced Navigation, which makes anti-spoofing technology.
Export controls can be another block to making technologies available for passenger jets, defence firm Honeywell (NASDAQ:), which designs avionics solutions to jamming and spoofing, said.
According to an agenda for Thursday’s meeting, both short-term and long-term solutions will be discussed, including what technologies exist and can be applied today.
The difficulty will be coming up with a coordinated approach that is acceptable to regulators and also cost-effective for airlines.
“Ultimately, stakeholders need to come together and agree on a standard,” said Matthias Schaefer, the managing director of SeRo Systems GmbH, another maker of anti-spoofing tech.
IATA, the International Air Transport Association, said the meeting would focus on developing guidance for risk mitigation.
The EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) confirmed the event was taking place, but did not respond to requests for a guest list or further details on the agenda.
“The FAA (U.S. Federal Aviation Authority) is working with interagency and international partners on global navigation satellite system (GNSS) authentication capabilities and GNSS disruption identification, location and mitigation tools,” the FAA said in an emailed statement.
A spokesperson for the NATO military alliance said it would not send a representative.
Air France will be among airlines attending the meeting to raise its concerns and connect with those designing anti-spoofing technologies.
“Air France … is working with manufacturers and regulatory agencies to improve the handling of interference, whether intentional or not,” a spokesperson said.
AirBaltic said it had taken precautions since noticing an increase in incidents.
“We have created an appropriate risk prevention plan and action algorithm, guided by the aircraft manufacturer’s instructions,” a spokesperson said, without giving more details.
Plane manufacturers have issued guidance following OPSGROUP’s warning, but industry sources said this related more to temporary workarounds than a long-term solution.
In addition to navigation, airliners rely on GPS for a host of on-board calculations.
Two pilots, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, told Reuters they had been switching off their GPS systems and using alternative navigation techniques when flying over areas where spoofing has been reported.
Some industry players said that, rather than mandating airlines buy anti-spoofing technologies, regulators could opt to boost training for pilots so they can identify when they are being spoofed and move to alternative navigation methods.
“If I know that I am transiting near Iran and that there have been incidences of GPS jamming, I probably would not rely on GPS,” said Matt Thompson, senior technical adviser for the Association of Old Crows, a U.S.-based nonprofit specialising in electronic warfare and tactical information operations.