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Expert View: The security concerns facing the rail industry’s adoption of GNSS.

Artist's impression of a GPS-IIRM satellite in orbit - by US Government - US National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing, Public Domain"...could cause trains to unwittingly transmit a false speed or location, otherwise known as Hazardously Misleading Information."

 In the coming decade, fundamental aspects of train traffic operations will be guided and interlinked by real-time digital data from a wide array of sources. Business-critical functions such as train traffic management and track repairs will be guided by real-time Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) data, including GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems). Today, we bring you an exclusive guest post from Nigel Davies, Head of Secured Navigation at QinetiQ who discusses the potential security vulnerabilities inherent in satellite-guided train traffic management...

Already, GNSS is being used in a number of railway applications including management of rolling stock, passenger information, door operation procedures, level crossing approach and cargo track signalling.  This reliance on satellite navigation systems is only expected to increase; the Rail Safety and Standards Board forecasts that GNSS will be in use this decade for critical railway operations such as signalling and train movement control and monitoring.

By 2019, Network Rail will be close to its target of implementing ‘right time’ timetabling which uses on-board GPS equipment to monitor and control every train in real-time, creating a hyper-efficient rail network where trains move in harmony and on-schedule. It is already pioneering Plain Line Pattern Recognition (PLPR) where GPS co-ordinates are used to automatically direct engineers to the site of faults that may need repair identified by thermal imaging cameras. 

This could have major benefits for both rail operators and their customers.  Adaptable scheduling based on real-time location and timing data could improve the passenger experience and squeeze extra capacity out of existing lines dramatically boosting the speed and efficiency of global rail trade

However, as with the adoption of new processes in any industry these technological advances could also introduce new vulnerabilities, which have the potential to harm business reputations if they are not addressed.

The Hidden Threat:

Increasing over-reliance on GNSS carries inherent risks. The satellites which transmit GNSS signals orbit the earth at an altitude of over 20,000km and the signals are consequently very weak and virtually indistinguishable from a cacophony of background noise by the time they reach the Earth, so that they require complex algorithms to identify and track them. This renders GNSS highly vulnerable to electronic ‘jamming’ devices, which can drown out the signal.

Thanks to the widespread availability of cheap and increasingly powerful wide-band electronic jammers, it is now relatively easy to jam these signals.

The SENTINEL Project - a UK Government-backed investigation of GPS/GNSS signal jamming - has tracked the growing power of jammers and has already noted incidents of GPS jammers used aboard trains in the UK.  This could have serious implications. A jamming incident affecting the GPS data relayed to the train computer could render it incapable of accurately calculating its speed or location.

It is also quite easy for an attacker to “spoof” the signals sent by GNSS satellites. A GPS spoofing attack - where counterfeit signals are sent to deceive a receiver - could cause trains to unwittingly transmit a false speed or location, otherwise known as Hazardously Misleading Information. This could cause delays, disruption or incorrect timetabling information, impacting on the service operators provide.

Digital Guide: Urban Rail and Metro - solutions for a changing industry.

A Solution
QinetiQ ( @QinetiQ )is working with a group of stakeholders including the European Space Agency and the UK Government to  develop a new generation of high performance satellite receivers that can switch seamlessly between multiple GNSS 'constellations', from Russia’s GLONASS to GPS, and multiple frequencies (MCMF) ensuring business continuity even in the event of a significant jamming or spoofing attack affecting one network When installed on trains, these receivers will be able to process data from a range of different sources, including a wide range of regional and global satellite navigation signals, adding redundancy and error detection in the event of a jamming or spoofing attack.

Thanks to major recent advances in anti-interference processing, anti-tamper technology and intrusion protection, future GNSS-guidance systems will be highly secure against deliberate interference and spoofing attacks. 

As such technology reaches maturity over the next few years the threat of interference will be significantly reduced and Europe’s future digital rail infrastructure can be effectively secured against GNSS vulnerabilities. This will help convince more rail operators to move to rail digitalisation.

 Guest post from Nigel Davies, Head of Secured Navigation at QinetiQ 

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Topics: IT and WiFi, SmartInterviews

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