Is your superyacht's modern-day navigation system vulnerable?

20 January 2015 • Written by Bransom Bean

In October 2013, LORAN radio navigation was making a comeback when the U.S. government announced the inevitable - it was ceasing printing paper charts. At the same time, Apple was hard at work on a glitch that made the compass in its iPhone unreliable, while researchers from Trend Micro found that the Automatic Identification System (AIS) is vulnerable to cyber attacks and Russia discovered a new island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago. Ironically, hacking GPS was already old cyber news by then. Indeed, the science of navigation lives in interesting times.

Electronic charts are updated continuously, but when was the last time your paper chart was updated?

GPS Trust Issues

The bad news is you can’t trust your GPS. Not so long ago, GPS seemed the navigator’s silver bullet, especially after President Bill Clinton was finished with it. Clinton signed an executive order that switched off the error built into the U.S. GPS satellite constellation on May 2, 2000, basically eliminating the need for compensation. With the push of an expensive White House pen, Clinton enabled anyone with a standard, off-the-shelf GPS to know exactly where they were, right down to which lane they were driving in on the New Jersey Turnpike. Suddenly, everyone was using GPS, blindly following that faceless voice down country lanes that led nowhere or across rivers that the GPS somehow thought had a bridge. At the time, it seemed that Differential GPS would go the way of LORAN, Decca and Omega navigation systems as a result.

And it seems nobody latched on to GPS and other Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) like the maritime industry, despite maneuverability becoming ever more restricted by more vessels, larger vessels, wind farms and brand-new islands rising up from a previously empty sea in response to a local earthquake. ‘The maritime world has almost completely adopted GPS,’ says Dr. Paul Williams of the U.K.’s General Lighthouse Authority. The problem is there’s not just one GNSS system — Russia, the U.S., China and France each have one; Europe, India and Japan are developing systems of their own — and all of them are vulnerable to solar flares, jamming and hacking.

All GPS systems are vulnerable to solar flares, jamming and hacking.


Professor Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas at Austin is famous for hacking, or ‘spoofing’, the 213-foot motor yacht White Rose of Drachs to change course on a passage from Monaco to Italy using just $3,000 worth of GPS spoofing gear in June 2013. And to drive home the point, his team repeated the exercise in the middle of the Corinth Canal, positioning the yacht one to two miles in the middle of the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

Whether anybody will spoof a superyacht in anger is open to debate, says Humphreys, but the U.S. government, after losing an ultra-secret Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel UAV to Iran in 2011, seems to be listening.

Unlike spoofing, you know when jamming is happening to you. You can buy a GPS jammer online for as little as $50. Almost nothing strikes fear in the hearts of today’s modern bridge team than the words ‘Dead Reckoning activated—Press cancel to continue’ flashing on their nav system screen. Imagine that happening in fog around the Bosphorus or the Golden Gate Bridge.

The victim of a 16-day GPS jamming attack by its seldom-friendly neighbour to the north, South Korea wants a backup ASAP. The British recently had an epiphany related to the English Channel and the prospect of jamming the GPS on the 600 ships transiting every day.

Not-so Automatic Identification

Even AIS, the system that gives a ship name to that dot on your radar screen, is vulnerable to cyber attacks. It also relies on GPS as it exchanges position, course, cargo, origin, destination and vital stats with nearby vessels. In fact, in a clone of GPS spoofing, it turns out hackers can disable your AIS altogether and create fake contacts, even lights and buoys. They also can set off fake SOS, man overboard, or closest-point-of-approach alarms.

Recently, an oil tanker sanctioned by OFAC, managed to pass through the Gulf of Oman using an identity number that matched that of a smaller tanker, which was not on the OFAC blacklist, allowing it to ‘disguise’ itself.

The goal is accuracy, availability, integrity and continuity, and the IMO mandates that e-navigation must be resilient.

Dr. Paul Williams

Going Old-school

Enter eLORAN. ‘The goal is accuracy, availability, integrity and continuity, and the IMO mandates that e-navigation must be resilient,’ observes Dr. Williams. Led by the General Lighthouse Authorities of the U.K. and Ireland, the U.K. Department for Transport approved seven differential eLORAN stations along the south and east coasts of the U.K. to provide alternative position, navigation and timing (PNT) information should GPS fail. They’re expected to be operational by the summer of 2014.

Uncharted Waters

If only the uncertainty of modern navigation were confined to GPS. The youthful generations X and Y, technologically savvy and early-adapting, have suffered the snipes and barbs from grizzled old mariners who have said that you could always trust a paper chart.

Relying on just one source of navigational information for your superyacht is asking for trouble

It turns out you can’t always trust a paper chart, as proven in 2005 when the Los Angeles-Class Submarine USS San Francisco smashed into an uncharted seamount while running submerged at a high speed. They knew exactly where they were on the chart, and one sailor was killed. Vice Admiral Jonathan Greenert, commander of the 7th Fleet, noted that the seamount struck by San Francisco was not on the primary chart being used when the grounding occurred. Other charts referred to an area of ‘discoloured water’.

A big problem is that paper charts require regular updates from Notices to Mariners, which is a tedious task. With electronic charts being updated continuously, when was the last time that paper chart was updated?

A big problem is that paper charts require regular updates from Notices to Mariners


But electronic charts aren’t foolproof either - as evidenced by the minesweeper USS Guardian, high and dry on a Philippine reef in January 2013. After commenting on a “lack of leadership” that led to Guardian’s watch team’s ‘disregard of visual cues, electronic cues and alarms’ in the hours leading up to the grounding, Admiral Cecil Haney, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, would highlight reliance on inaccurate Digital Nautical Charts (DNC).

And it’s not just the Navy. In March 2013, as the 22,080-ton, 800-passenger cruise ship Marco Polo left Sortland, Norway, she tore a 13-foot hole in her hull on what was termed ‘a previously uncharted rock’. Worse yet, she was being handled by a local pilot. No one seemed more surprised than Hugo Naess, port director for the Port of Sortland. ‘This has never happened before in the 15 years I have worked at the port, and about 2200 different ships per year use the port,’ he said. ‘The Norwegian Coastal Administration is responsible for the correct charts, and it will be investigating the incident.’

One person who probably wasn’t all that surprised is David Wyatt, assistant director of the International Hydrographic Organisation, an intergovernmental consultative and technical organisation established in 1921 to support safety of navigation and the protection of the marine environment. ‘Less than ten percent of the world’s seas are surveyed to modern standards, and some countries in Africa are not meeting SOLAS standards,’ he said.

In the U.S., it has been estimated that approximately half of the depth soundings shown on U.S. charts predates 1940, and that information was obtained using decidedly low-tech wire drags and lead line soundings.

How Yachts Can Help

In the face of 35 percent cuts in governmental surveys around the world, Crowd Sourced Bathymetry is the hydrographic version of TripAdvisor. Any vessel, superyachts included, can use an autonomous, crew-independent system to continuously gather GPS position and sonar data with the option of also gathering meteorological and environmental information. When the ‘black box’ finds the opportunity, it automatically uploads the collected data via shore-based wireless access points, cellular networks or the vessel’s existing broadband connection.

As Wyatt observes, ‘It’s a chance to be a modern day explorer, to sail into the unknown….’ And at the risk of stealing a line from ‘Star Trek’, there is the opportunity to boldly go where research ships with deeper draft have never gone before. Contributing vessels now range from 20-foot fast fishing boats to 1,000-foot cruise ships.

Crowd Sourced Bathymetry is the hydrographic version of TripAdvisor


Star Gazing

All of this, of course, has not gone unnoticed by the licensing authorities, such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). Only three out of 20 officers of the watch still know how to use a sextant, let alone perform the sight reduction. In response, the MCA recently announced that as of January 1, 2014, renewing bridge tickets will require the candidate to pass a celestial navigation exam.

Ultimately, mariners have tried never to be dependent on just one source for their position, and one key source of information was their eyesight coupled with common sense. The difference today is that there’s so much that’s easy to look at inside the pilothouse, it takes conscious effort to look outside. Now, as it was with the Phoenicians, the Vikings and Christopher Columbus, it’s vital you do.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 edition of ShowBoats International.

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