Congress blocks Loran turnoff

 - December 8, 2006, 4:42 AM
Like the proverbial cat with nine lives, loran has once more rebounded from attempts on its life. Loran has always been owned and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, which since the late 1990s has been trying to close down the system. Congress has consistently demurred and has each year put continuing operating funds for loran back into the agency’s budget.

In its FY07 estimates, the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard’s new parent, also allotted zero funding for loran. On this occasion, the House and Senate Conference Committee responded by placing several administrative roadblocks for DHS to overcome, including the unusual one of requesting the names of those officials supporting loran closure in government entities other than the Coast Guard that would be affected. Reportedly, this might cause some officials to reassess their positions, and loran will live on for another day.

One of the key issues involved in extending the life of loran is how much it would cost to complete the modernization of the four stations in Alaska and then staff and operate them, in addition to the 20 already upgraded stations in the lower 48. Official figures are not available, but AIN has learned that the Coast Guard has estimated that modernization will cost around $350 million, and follow-on operating costs would be $35 million per year.

Industry observers say that these figures are extraordinarily high and suggest that if the stations were upgraded by a civil contractor, converted to unmanned operation and maintained by a civil company, modernization costs would be closer to $60 million, while operating costs would be around $12 million. Both the Coast Guard and private industry cost estimates include adding three new stations, one covering Southern California and two covering the Gulf of Mexico.

One source told AIN that the Coast Guard has around 300 people in its loran operations group to run the 24 North American stations, roughly the same number that ran 49 stations worldwide, before 25 of those were taken over and operated by their host nations.

GPS Backup

The second issue involves the potential of loran to fulfill the acknowledged need–expressed by the FAA and other agencies–for a means of supporting GPS in light of its known vulnerabilities to accidental or deliberate jamming and solar interference effects. Loran advocates are promoting their system as a low-frequency, extremely reliable and essentially unjammable GPS backup for both navigation and for the provision of very high accuracy timing signals.

In navigation, it would be used in its new, eLoran form, where very small “receiver-on-a-chip” devices would be incorporated inside GPS units, operating autonomously in a GPS-like “all in view” mode to track an aircraft’s position by simultaneously using signals from every station within 1,000 miles or more.
Flight tests by the FAA’s Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., showed that eLoran yielded corrected position accuracies close to those of GPS itself. In the timing application, Loran’s nanosecond precision timing signals are already used to back up GPS in several parts of the nation’s critical infrastructure, such as telecommunications, banking, and power and other utility control systems.

Before the recent Congressional ruling, it had been decided within the executive branch that a final go/no-go decision on the long-term continuation of loran would be made this month. To reach that decision, the Department of Transportation called on the federally funded Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), a research and development think tank, to assemble a panel of experts to conduct an independent assessment of the case and provide recommendations for the decision. (The IDA has convened similar expert panels, including one that reviewed the FAA’s WAAS program when it experienced technical and certification difficulties in 2001, and provided the agency with short- and long-term guidance.)

The 11 members of the newly formed Loran Independent Assessment Team–all former high-ranking specialists in navigation and timing technologies–are led by Professor Brad Parkinson, who as a USAF officer oversaw the development and initial introduction of GPS in the 1970s and has since been acknowledged as the “father of GPS.” The team’s report to the DOT was planned for late last month or early this month.