i-GPS plan stumbles on Capitol Hill

  • The typical story, repeated yet again: Inter-service and/or DOD vs. service rivalry, combined with Congressional stupidity, team up to kill a potentially breakthrough technology.  (Excerpts, followed by my bulleted comments.)
Congressional doubts and disagreements between the Air Force and Defense Department have stalled a potentially breakthrough technology called i-GPS that could bring significant improvements to satellite navigation by 2010.

The Air Force’s concerns center on the government’s plans to field a fleet of next-generation GPS satellites, dubbed GPS-III, observers say. If i-GPS works as promised, it could supplant many of the initial capabilities GPS-III is expected to deliver when it is fielded some time after 2013.

  • Ah, so basically, it sounds like someone in the Air Force has an interest in GPS-III and is having his/her toes stepped on with this i-GPS project. As a result, we seem to be heading in the direction of having a system that is better than the current system by 2013, as opposed to a potentially even better system 3 years sooner
So far, researchers have relied on computer simulations to test the technology and have made some of the results available to DOD experts.

Those test results led to the controversy, DOD sources said.

Many at DOD believe Boeing’s upcoming test could put an end to all doubts about the feasibility of i-GPS — or kill the military’s involvement with it altogether. “You can’t argue with data,” one official said.

  • Uh…except that you CAN argue with data, which is why the data from the simulations was controversial. And if people really have vested interests in seeing i-GPS killed (which it sounds like they do), then you can be sure that someone will argue with the data. This is another area where STS could provide valuable insight in the area of defense technology. Scientists and engineers argue over the meaning of data, whether it was properly collected, whether it is representative, etc. all the time. Yet, “officials” like this one make exactly these kinds of hackneyed statements all the time as well.

Even if the tests prove successful, lawmakers remain unconvinced.

  • Exactly! That sounds to me like arguing with the data before the data is even collected and regardless of what the data means, assuming anyone even agrees on what it means.
After the House passed the Defense Authorization bill May 17, the Senate Armed Services Committee moved to cut the program. The panel decided to grant funds only for the $10 million proof-of-concept study but not the receiver-development program, committee spokeswoman Tara Andringa said.

If the military has to pass on the technology, Iridium and Boeing executives will look for customers elsewhere.

“We believe there’s a significant commercial applicability of i-GPS,” said Greg Ewert, Iridium’s executive vice president.

  • Of course they will. And if it works, they will probably make a ton of money. And if they can incorporate this technology into some sort of slick, ultra-portable, consumer electronics devises–i-GPS meets iPhone maybe?–then it will make a huge splash, will become the next big thing. Of course, then the Senate Armed Services Committee will have to hold hearings about why your average Tom, Dick, Harry, or Muhammed on the street can get this technology but the U.S. military can’t.

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