LOWER TOWNSHIP – The radio navigation system that helped win World War II and then guided mariners and aviators in peacetime may be making a comeback.
And it starts right here in New Jersey.
It won’t exactly be the old Loran C system southern New Jersey fishermen and general aviation pilots grew up with. It would be better. The so-called enhanced Loran, or eLoran, is being tested here at a decommissioned Coast Guard base that ran Loran operations from 1947 to 2010.
New Jersey became the first state to turn the signal back on Friday afternoon as two private firms, engineering companies UrsaNav and Harris, provided seed money for the tests supported by the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies under something called a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement or CRADA.
“This is a phoenix arriving. We have the opportunity to add 2015 technology to the older idea,” said Chuck Schue, the president and chief operating officer of UrsaNav, and a former Coast Guard commanding officer here at what was then called the Loran Support Unit.
The rise of the satellite-based Global Positioning System, or GPS, had put radio navigation out of business. There is growing concern that the nation needs a back-up system since satellites can fall prey to solar storms, wars, jamming devices, and other threats. Fixing them can also involve the expensive proposition of going into space.
Schue noted a jamming device recently stopped flight data at Newark International Airport, in April all GPS systems in Russia inexplicably “went dark” for 11 hours, San Diego lost GPS for 13 hours, and solar flares have knocked out commercial satellites. Another concern is “spoofing,” where somebody can take control of a GPS in a car, boat or even a drone and actually navigate it.
“A prudent mariner always has two systems to navigate,” said Schue.
But Loran isn’t just for mariners. Planes use it. It can be used for precise positioning, navigation and timing with any number of applications. GPS also fails in some dense canopy areas, in between tall urban buildings, underground, under water and other spots where several satellites can’t line up, but eLoran would work.
Dana Goward, a retired Coast Guardsman whose non-profit Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation is working on the project, said Loran C was precise within 100 meters but with eLoran “we can get to six meters or less.”
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd., who serves on intelligence, Coast Guard and Armed Services panels in Congress, is a big supporter.
“Very often, unfortunately, Congress is reactive to something going on. I want redundancy now to be able to not go dark,” said LoBiondo.
The congressman fought several years ago to prevent the 625-foot tower here from being torn down as part of the base was converted into a national wildlife refuge. He was thinking about a back-up system even then.
“You’d never get permits to put up a 625-foot tower again,” he noted.
The Loran Support Unit was decommissioned in 2010 but under international agreements with countries such as Canada and Russia it had some operations as late as January 2014. That was the last time the equipment was turned on up until Friday.
After warning people there would be some noise, and people with pacemakers should leave, the signal was activated at 12:16 p.m.
“This is the first Loran in the U.S. in a couple of years,” said Goward.
“California will be turning theirs on but we are the first,” said LoBiondo.
Those at the event stressed the importance of GPS. Coward said as a Coast Guard helicopter pilot he saved lives due to GPS.
“Life would be very hard without GPS,” said Goward.
In 2014, however, the federal government decided a second system was need, just in case. A ground-based system would be much easier to fix if GPS went down. That gave rise to the idea of bringing back Loran.
The Loran system is considered one of the top 10 technologies of World War II. With stations at isolated islands and atolls in the Pacific, it was able to guide planes and ships to their targets over vast expanses of open water. The radio signals could be used to fix exact positions using a geometric triangulation system. The planes that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan used it.
The Loran Support Unit here in Diamond Beach at its height had 250 Coast Guard and civilian workers.
Then GPS came along, nobody much worried about satellites being destroyed, and the radio-navigation system was shut down to save an estimated $36 million a year.
Pam Drew, the president of information systems at Harris, said eLoran is vital for national security by augmenting GPS.
“We will explore many places eLoran can be deployed where GPS isn’t available such as deep canyons, through buildings, in foliage and under water. We’re involved with unmanned aerial drones and eLoran could be key. There are applications for civilian and military uses,” said Drew.
LoBiondo recalled the debate on tearing down the Loran tower, which he won.
“Folks suggested GPS was the answer to everything. A few of us said, ‘Maybe not so fast.’ I am just thrilled we are embarking on this. This will lead us to redundancy that is sorely needed,” said LoBiondo.
Friday was just a test. There will be no regular Loran signal in the immediate future but the two firms, UrsaNav and Harris, will continue doing research and development here. One goal is to reduce the size, weight, cost, power needs and other aspects of Loran, similar to what has evolved with GPS.
Drew noted if a decision is made to have a national eLoran system it will take federal dollars. LoBiondo said they have to demonstrate to federal agencies it is a wise investment.