Magnetic Navigation: Revolutionizing Defense, Commercial and Civilian Navigation

June 25, 2024

The Pitfalls of GPS Dependence

In our digital age, Global Positioning System (GPS) technology has become ubiquitous, underpinning systems from online orders and food deliveries to sophisticated military operations. However, its widespread adoption has cultivated overreliance, particularly in defense scenarios where the stakes are highest. 

This exposes critical infrastructure to significant risks, primarily due to increasing threats of GPS jamming and spoofing. Many reading this will be familiar with the former, which is self-explanatory; the latter, spoofing, is much less well-known and much more dangerous: adverse actors can now send fake GPS signals to devices in a given vicinity, making operators believe they are in one place but really they are in another. Multiple planes in the last 6 months have been nearly tricked into flying unauthorized into Iranian airspace by this method.  

These vulnerabilities not only jeopardize military effectiveness but also threaten civilian infrastructure, including transportation networks and safety of flights, financial markets, and public safety systems.

Emergence of GPS Spoofing and Jamming

Instances of GPS jamming and spoofing have escalated by 2,000% since 2018. These disruptions can lead to misguidance of military operations, errors in logistical planning, and even the potential for catastrophic accidents. The practice is most prevalent in heavily contested air and water ways, such as the current military conflicts in Israel and the Ukraine, or around highly sensitive or geographically strategic areas like in the Indo-Pacific region.

For example, since August 2023, over 46,000 aircraft flights to and from Europe were affected by suspected Russian jamming around Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland and headquarters of Russia’s Baltic fleet. Because of this, Finland’s flagship carrier Finnair suspended its daily flights to Tartu, Estonia, from April 29 to June 1, 2024 until an alternative navigation solution could be implemented. On the other side of the world, Qantas Airlines instructed its pilots in March 2023 to fly through radio interference and GPS jamming reportedly coming from Chinese warships in the South China Sea. 

These significant disruptions highlight the vulnerabilities in our current navigation systems​ and support the urgent need for a resilient alternative to GPS. Click here to look at live GPS jamming and spoofing incidents around the world. 

MagNav: A Viable Alternative

Magnetic Navigation (MagNav) emerges as a potent solution to these challenges. Four key components converge to make MagNav a reality: (1) The Earth’s crustal magnetic field, which is unique on every square meter of the planet; (2) Global high fidelity maps of that magnetic field; (3) Advanced sensing technology to sense that magnetic field; and (4) Advanced AI that pulls that magnetic field out of surrounding magnetic noise. Combined, these components allow operators to navigate anywhere on earth with an unjammable, unspoofable, GPS-agnostic solution.

Component 1: The Crustal Field
The Earth’s magnetic field is generated primarily by movements within its liquid core, composed of molten iron and nickel. This generates the core magnetic field, which creates the familiar geomagnetic field lines that converge near the poles. The polar magnetic fields, influenced by these core dynamics, can shift and change over time due to various factors, including solar activity and internal geodynamic processes.

In contrast, the crustal magnetic field is produced by the magnetized minerals within the Earth's crust. Because there is a non-uniform distribution of those metals throughout the crust, the crustal field has a unique fingerprint everywhere on Earth. Unlike the core field, the crustal field is relatively stable over geologic timescales (millions to hundreds of millions of years) because the rocks and minerals in the crust retain their magnetic properties over long periods. This stability and unique composition makes the crustal magnetic field a globally useful and enduring signal source for positioning which requires little to no infrastructure to maintain relative to GNSS systems, which cost billions per year to maintain and upgrade.

According to Dr. Kimberly Moore, Lead Geophysicist at SandboxAQ, “Earth’s magnetic field is a reliable source of navigation. Compasses have used Earth’s magnetic field to assist navigators for over a thousand years. Today’s advanced sensing technology goes far beyond a compass to provide an accurate position anywhere across the globe, making it an excellent navigational tool.”

Component 2: Magnetic Maps
Public and private organizations have been collecting magnetic field data for years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has developed extensive high-fidelity public maps. However, some areas are better mapped than others. This discrepancy presents an opportunity to add more coverage and fidelity to create comprehensive global magnetic maps. These enhanced maps are crucial for accurate navigation and positioning, leveraging the unique magnetic fingerprints found across different regions of the Earth's crust.

Component 3: Advanced Sensors
Advanced sensors are critical to MagNav’s functionality, but several challenges must be addressed to fully leverage their capabilities. Proper sensor arrangement allows us to reconstruct the magnetic environment, and careful sensor fusion allows us to leverage the strengths of both quantum and classical sensor systems.  Integrating these sensors with existing navigation systems requires both hardware and software solutions to facilitate seamless communication and real-time data processing. 

Calibration is essential to remove the impact of onboard electronics and other sources of magnetic noise while maintaining the sensors' sensitivity to detect subtle variations in the Earth's magnetic field. Ensuring reliability across diverse environments—ranging from deep oceans to high altitudes—requires continuous validation to maintain accuracy and functionality under varying conditions of pressure, temperature, and humidity. By addressing these challenges, MagNav can provide precise and reliable magnetic field data, essential for delivering accurate navigation information.

Component 4: De-Noising AI Models
Novel AI models are at the heart of MagNav’s ability to filter out noise from other magnetic sources. While the crustal magnetic field provides a stable signal, it is essential to remove noise from other magnetic sources. According to Dr. Patrick Neary, Lead AI/ML Engineer at SandboxAQ, “Since the 1950s, we've used methods to reduce magnetic noise. The hard part is that magnetic conditions keep changing. Our proprietary methods help our algorithms adapt to these changes.” 

The Earth's core magnetic field, avionics, space weather, and other electronic devices contribute to this noise. Novel AI models are designed to de-noise the magnetic data, isolating the crustal field from these interferences. These models use sophisticated algorithms to filter out unwanted signals, ensuring that the navigation system can rely on a clean and accurate crustal magnetic map for positioning. This capability is crucial for maintaining the integrity and reliability of the MagNav system in various operational scenarios.

As we continue to innovate and push the boundaries of technology, we are excited to announce AQNav - the world’s first dual-use real-time magnetic navigation system powered by AI and quantum technology (AQ). AQNav marks a significant step forward in robust navigation and we’re excited about the impact of this technology. Check out our product announcement to learn more.   

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