Photo Info
MagNav equipment in the back of a C-17A Globemaster III, ready for a first real-time demonstration during Exercise Golden Phoenix in May 2023. USAF Photo

How magnetic navigation could provide a backup to GPS

By Ed Brotak | November 7, 2023

Estimated reading time 4 minutes, 37 seconds.

For many, “magnetic navigation” brings to mind the trusty magnetic compass, which has been around for hundreds of years. But today, there is a whole new — and far more modern — meaning to the term.

MagNav equipment in the back of a C-17A Globemaster III, ready for a first real-time demonstration during Exercise Golden Phoenix in May 2023. USAF Photo
MagNav equipment in the back of a C-17A Globemaster III, ready for a first real-time demonstration during Exercise Golden Phoenix in May 2023. USAF Photo

Magnetic navigation — or MagNav — offers the promise of an alternative means of precise global navigation, should a GPS signal become unavailable. MagNav uses the local magnetic field lines that surround the globe, which are generated by movements of the earth’s solid inner core and molten outer core. Other forces on the magnetic field (including magnetization of the earth’s crust) cause distortions in these lines, and these distortions vary depending on location. This crustal magnetic anomaly field can be mapped — with any point on the globe able to be identified by its unique crustal anomaly configuration.

While GPS has become the standard for position location and navigation, relying on a satellite signal has its drawbacks. Signal blockage or reflection can cause problems at or near the ground, and any issue with the satellite itself can affect users. In a worst case scenario, were the satellite system to be attacked or made unresponsive, an alternative could provide a crucial backup.

MagNav will work anywhere — land, sea, or air — and it’s not affected by weather. In terms of security, there is no attackable infrastructure, it emits no signal, and it is nearly impossible to jam. All this hold clear appeal to the U.S. Military.

In a groundbreaking trial earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force, in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), flew three C-17A Globemaster IIIs using real-time MagNav, marking a first such use of the technology in Department of Defense aircraft.

The aircraft were flown by the Department of the Air Force-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Accelerator (AIA) MagNav Project team from Travis AFB to Edwards AFB in California during Exercise Golden Phoenix in May.

The AIA MagNav team used artificial intelligence and machine learning through the AIA’s calibration and positioning neural network, which the Air Force Test Center said was trained during the flight “in a matter of minutes on a commercially available laptop.”

The team leveraged global collaboration to improve the AIA’s neural network architecture, which helped remove the aircraft’s “magnetic noise” to pinpoint its position in comparison to a known magnetic map.

The Air Force said a technical report will soon be presented to the U.S. government, informing future MagNav experiments for other DoD platforms, including submarines, hypersonic glide vehicles, and small UAS.

“Every pilot fears single points of failure,” said Maj. Kyle McAlpin, AIA MagNav liaison, in a press release announcing the MagNav demonstration. “Our strategy documents lament the DoD’s over-reliance on GPS — a single point of failure in our ability to navigate precisely. The next fight demands unassailable positioning and navigation. We can achieve that by augmenting GPS with alternatives like celestial navigation, signals of opportunity, visual navigation, and magnetic navigation.”

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