Satellite navigation and tracking via GPS has become a critical link in the world’s rapidly growing logistics and freight carrying ecosystem. Companies use GPS to track trucks and keep them on time and their cargo secure.
Little wonder, then, that criminals are turning to cheap GPS jamming devices to ransack the cargo on roads and at sea, a problem that’s getting worse but may be ameliorated with a new generation of safety technology designed to overcome threats from jamming.
In case you aren’t a master criminal or a secret agent, here’s some background. The core problem for any system using GPS is that the signals are extremely weak, an inevitable byproduct of the vast distances those signals need to travel. Jammers work by overpowering GPS signals by emitting a signal at the same frequency, just a bit more powerful than the original. The typical jammers used for cargo hijackings are able to jam frequencies from up to 5 miles away rendering GPS tracking and security apparatuses, such as those used by trucking syndicates, totally useless.
In Mexico, jammers are used in some 85% of cargo truck thefts. Statistics are harder to come by in the United States, but there can be little doubt the devices are prevalent and widely used. Russia is currently availing itself of the technology to jam commercial planes in Ukraine.
As we’ve covered, the proliferating commercial drone sector is also prey to attack. Drones often rely on GPS for navigation as well as security tracking, making them especially vulnerable. Drones equipped with back-up methods still often rely on GPS for positioning, navigation, and stabilization, making jammers a way to take a drone down and potentially cause harm to life and property. During a light show in Hong Kong in 2018, a jamming device caused 46 drones to fall out of the sky, raising public awareness of the issue.
Technologies are emerging to counter this problem. A company called infiniDome has developed an anti-jamming solution that is compatible with almost any GPS-based telematics unit, a catch-all term for the technologies trucking companies use to track and monitor their assets on the road. InfiniDome’s “OtoSphere” is a small add-on device created for commercial GNSS receivers, providing protection and increasing the resiliency of GPS devices against jamming attacks. By identifying and preventing instances of jamming, fleet operators are able to prevent cargo theft.
Other companies, such as Sepentrio, are also taking GPS jamming in drone applications seriously with integrated sensor solutions.
In the meantime, governments are hoping to fight back through regulation, although that may be a losing battle. Mexico passed an anti-jamming law in late 2020, allowing for penalties of 12-15 years in prison for persons caught using such devices while committing crimes.
Nevertheless, jammers remain widely available online, where they can be purchased for as little as $50.