Japan positions itself for the future

The most important infrastructure of our daily lives is invisible: the Global Positioning System. GPS is a network of satellites that provides precise locations, which is integrated into all sorts of electronic devices, from self-driving cars and navigation systems to mobile phones. An accurate and reliable GPS system is also a national security concern, as GPS is a central component of modern weapons systems, air traffic controls, and even parts of the economy like agriculture. Not surprisingly, then, there are mounting questions about the security of GPS systems, and Japan, like all other major economies, must take them seriously.

Those concerns crystalized in recent days after reports that Russia had interfered with GPS systems in Northern Europe during NATO war games held during the last two weeks. Officials observed disruptions to GPS signals during the closing days of Trident Juncture, the largest NATO exercise in decades. The participation of military forces from 31 countries — all 29 NATO members, along with Finland and Sweden — prompted Russian complaints of hostile behavior.

Russia has interfered with GPS systems in the past. Recognizing the central role of high-tech and satellite systems to U.S. (and allied) war fighting capabilities, Russia has invested heavily in electronic warfare systems. Norway reported the jamming of GPS signals during the September 2017 Zapad military exercise that Russia held.

In fact, the GPS system was developed by the U.S. military. The project was inaugurated in 1973 and became fully operational in 1995. It was made available for civilian use in the 1980s. Today GPS incorporates 31 satellites and provides accuracy up to 30 cm around the world. The system is administered by the United States, however, and it can use that control to deny users access to its data, as occurred during the Kargil conflict in 1999, when India was shut out of the system.

The importance of accurate positioning information to a modern economy, and concern about reliance on a U.S.-controlled system, has prompted other governments to develop their own programs. Europe, Russia, China and Japan all have satellite navigation projects; India is developing one, too.

Japan inaugurated its Michibiki satellite positioning system on Nov. 1. Michibiki currently has four satellites — launched between 2010 and 2017 — and three more will be put in orbit by 2023 to make it more robust. One of those satellites will remain over Japan at all times, and the system will be accurate within 10 cm, an exponential improvement over the GPS system, whose errors in position determination is said be usually within 10 meters. At the launch ceremony, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted that “our lifestyles would be impossible without GPS,” and added that the new system, officially known as the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), would allow Japan to turn “a new page in history.”

Michibiki is anticipated to generate new businesses worth nearly ¥5 trillion by 2025. Applications include road monitoring that can facilitate repairs in distant areas as well as self-driving cars. Its data can be used for tasks in agriculture, such as watering or fertilizing crops, a boon for Japan as its population decreases and those who remain leave the countryside and migrate to cities. According to one estimate, 80 percent of farming tasks can be automated. Michibiki’s accuracy can also be used for drone services, an industry that is expected to have explosive growth in coming years.

There are some problems. The receivers are prohibitively expensive and their price must be reduced to fraction of their current cost if they are to be commercially viable. They are also too large to fit in cell phones, which will be one of their most important uses.

Japan must also be careful that it does not miss out on innovation and be stuck — again — with a technology that is outdated and of limited application. Warning bells should be ringing this week upon news that British scientists demonstrated the first commercially viable quantum accelerometer for navigation, a system that does not rely on external signals to work. This is an important breakthrough: If the system does not need those signals, then it cannot be blocked or spoofed, which means it will be much more secure.

Accelerators measure changes in an object’s velocity, and use that to determine its position. They are already used in many technologies, but they rely on external measurements. The quantum accelerator unveiled at the National Quantum Technologies Showcase uses lasers to measure atoms, and that level of observation allows the system to forego external signals. The quantum accelerator marks the first step toward a new navigational system, which can, in its current design, be used for large vehicles, such as ships, submarines or trains. It is an exciting development, one that demands consideration by Japan’s scientists as they work to ensure that they remain on the cutting edge of technology.