Army physicists explore GPS-free navigation with electromagnetic fields

July 02, 2019

By U.S. Army CCDC Army Research Laboratory Public Affairs

ADELPHI, Md. (July 2, 2019) -- In the future, Soldiers and autonomous vehicles will use tricorder-like sensors to measure electromagnetic fields. That might be valuable information for navigation in a GPS-denied environment, according to Army research leadership.

At the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command's Army Research Laboratory, scientists are working on a project called Mobile Power Meter. It's a way to remotely measure power without exposure to harmful high voltages.

"The power grid bathes everything in electromagnetic low-frequency radiation," said research physicist Dr. Kevin Claytor, with the lab's Sensors and Electron Devices Directorate at its Adelphi Laboratory Center. "By measuring voltage, we can help determine the stability of the grid."

When you think about it, we're all swimming through 60-hertz fields, Claytor said.

"One of the cool experiments we did is strapping a sensor to the top of the car and driving it around town," he said.

Army researchers found stronger signals closer to power lines -- knowledge that may help with moving around power lines or for avoiding them altogether.

"We realized that we can use this for other applications such as navigation," Claytor said.

The Global Positioning System, or GPS, works by having many satellites in orbit broadcasting signals down to Earth. Those signals are very weak, Claytor said. This means they are vulnerable to jamming.

"The power system is basically a ground-based system that's generating a lot of 60-hertz fields," he said. "It's very difficult to avoid that signal. We can even see it from satellites."

By leveraging this, Army researchers think they may have a denial-resistant method of navigation.

"This could become really important for the Army of the future and for society in general," said CCDC ARL Director Dr. Phil Perconti. "If someone were to take down the GPS system, or the GPS signals were denied and people were trying to navigate...it would be somewhat problematic."

It would be a particular challenge for the U.S. Army because the military depends on assured position, navigation and timing to accomplish its wartime missions, he said.

"There are still outstanding problems," Claytor said. "One of the things is that you need good knowledge of where your source signals are."

Using supercomputers to interpret field measurements may be a potential solution, Claytor said.

"In the future, that's something that is going to be augmented by artificial intelligence and machine learning," he said.

"I think we're a few years away from seeing a demonstration of this," Claytor said. "Much of what we do at ARL is very future forward. We're focused not just on the immediate impact, but on impacts 20 or 30 years out."

In the meantime, Army researchers continue their underpinning research discovering, innovating and hopefully transitioning these capabilities to future warfighters, he said.

"This technology is probably more of the 15-to 20-year time frame," Claytor said. "But we'll probably see some demonstrations of that well before then."


The CCDC Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. As the Army's corporate research laboratory, ARL discovers, innovates and transitions science and technology to ensure dominant strategic land power. Through collaboration across the command's core technical competencies, CCDC leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more lethal to win our Nation's wars and come home safely. CCDC is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command.

 

Last Update / Reviewed: July 2, 2019