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Tech Tuesday

Sky is Falling? Not Just Yet

The U.S. Air Force is responsible for a very important technology more farmers rely on everyday. And it's not keeping up with improvements.

Check around and you can hardly see a car or tractor cab these days without a GPS-supported device. Add in all those smart phones that rely on satellite location for special services and you can pretty much say we're GPS-addicts. We may be getting near some cold-turkey trouble if the newest report from the Government Accountability Office is correct.

The GAO issued a report last year saying the U.S. Air Force was not keeping up with needed improvement and replacement of GPS satellites. It's the Air Force that is in charge of space operations for the country. And aging GPS satellites are on its healthy to-do list. For example a new satellite with enhanced GPS capability went into orbit in May of this year, but that was six months later than planned and a full 3-1/2 years behind schedule. And that's just one satellite.

While the Air Force works out its problems with that satellite program - called IIF - there's a new-generation GPS system in the works called GPS IIIA. The GAO says this new-generation system is on schedule, but could be hampered by delayed earth-bound systems that can't get going until the first satellite is launched.

Part of the challenge is procurement of satellite systems. Last year the GAO recommended creation of a single authority responsible for ensuring that all GPS segments are synchronized to "the maximum extent practicable." Given the delays and other issues, the GAO reported that this approach could get the program back on track. Right now the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation co-chair the system, which is confusing for many involved. GAO recommends DOD and DOT develop comprehensive guidance for the GPS interagency requirements process, however DOD didn't agree with the GAO assessment and DOT agreed to consider the idea.

What does it all mean for those in our industry who rely on GPS? Nothing yet, but if the Air Force remains behind schedule we could have challenges relying on the U.S. GPS system for directional data. And this IIIA standard actually requires new ground equipment which may or may not be available soon after the satellites are launched.

Which may answer why more GPS systems now include GLONASS - or Global Satellite Navigation System - the Russian counterpart to the U.S. GPS system. Just last month John Deere announced its newest Greenstar system would be able to use GLONASS for correction in addition to U.S. GPS. Interesting development that U.S. farmers will rely on Russian satellite technology to product food for the world. But at least we have a backup.

As for that U.S. GPS system? I know your Congressman and Senator are probably busy trying to get re-elected or position themselves to succeed in what will probably be a remade Capitol Hill structure after November. However, a note to the potential winners to not take their eye off the ball here is advised. GPS technology is increasingly important for those systems that help you track all the costs for your operation. If satellites start dropping into the Indian Ocean with no replacements already up there, that won't be good for business.

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