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Impact of COVID-19 on GNSS

Sep 2020 | No Comment

The impact of COVID-19 is most dramatic in the slow down of workforce training, education, and research at universities

Chris Rizos

Emeritus Professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a co-director of the Satellite Navigation and Positioning (SNAP) Lab at UNSW. Chris is presidentelect of the International Union of Geodesy & Geophysics (IUGG)

At first I was trying to determine how there many be (positive or negative) impacts of COVID-19 on GNSS applications. I went down a checklist. Would it impact science? No. Would there be less construction or surveying? No, perhaps an emphasis on infrastructure spending to rebuild economies would increase GNSS use. Would there be less precision agriculture or automated mining activities? No. Less personal/mobilephone applications? I doubt it. Less R&D into future driverless vehicles? No. Less use in aviation (including drones)? Maybe, but this is a tiny market. Less maritime users? No. Less interest in “smart weapons” by defence or security agencies? Definitely No. Less interest in addressing vulnerabilities of GNSS due to jamming or spoofing threats? No. Less investment in regional satellite-based augmentation systems? No. The list goes on….

The conclusions I drew were that there would be almost no negative impacts of COVID-19 on the production or deployment of GNSS products and services. That in fact the pre-COVID-19 market predictions of double-digit growth in the value of GNSS equipment and applications over the coming decade are valid (of course assuming that their original assumptions about the growth of GNSS-supported applications were correct).

Then I realised that the greatest impact of COVID-19 would be on the GNSS workforce. In particular universities are teaching using online methods. How does that impact on the numbers of students being educated in GNSS principles and practices? No more “hands-on” labs. Our research (PhD) students are not mixing with other students (and getting cross-fertilisation of ideas). They are not meeting as often with their thesis supervisors. Most seriously for many western countries, the number of graduate students from China, India and other countries, coming to their universities to do their PhD studies has dried up! Western universities are (for the most part) the institutions that train (i.e. to train undertake research) the highly qualified workforce that GNSS industries need for product development and service operations. (Of course, Chinese universities are still producing large numbers of graduates, but there will be a lag of several years before these are recruited to non-Chinese GNSS companies.) 

Furthermore with the cancellation of many conferences, there are currently no opportunities for early career researchers and graduate students to present the results of their research before their peers and obtain valuable feedback. It is possible to run conferences in “virtual” mode, but there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings over coffee or social events to engage in networking. This “networking” is the primary means by which academics and students discuss their work, identify new research challenges, find employment, and generally ensure the education sector remains dynamic. Even seasoned academics like myself feel cut off. We are not able to meet colleagues to discuss wider issues regarding GNSS, especially the many issues related to multi-constellation GNSS, alternative PNT technologies, national and international policy development, latest industry trends, new GNSS/PNT applications, defence vis-a-vis civilian GNSS issues, and new space-based PNT concepts (such as high performance clocks, possible use of LEO satellites, new signals and frequencies, and so on). It is impossible to quantify the impacts of such loss of intellectual interaction.

In short, I believe the impact of COVID-19 is most dramatic in the slow down of workforce training, education, and research at universities. There may then be a knock-on impact on GNSS industries and user communities in general.

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