Sunday, November 28, 2010

GAGA-1: CoCom limit for GPS

One problem for high-altitude balloon projects is the CoCom limit on how high and how fast a GPS will operate. To prevent GPS modules from being used in very fast moving weapons (such as ballistic missiles) GPS receivers are not allowed to operate at:

1. Higher than 60,000 feet

2. When traveling faster than 1,000 knots

The second restriction doesn't matter for GAGA-1, but the first does. GAGA-1 will have a maximum altitude (balloon dependent) of more like 100,000 feet.

Different manufacturers implement the CoCom limit in different ways: some use an AND rule (>60,000 ft and >1,000 knots) and others use an OR rule (>60,000 ft or >1,000 knots). For high-altitude ballooning it's ideal if the GPS uses AND. Unfortunately, this information is shrouded mostly in mystery and it's only through actual flights and testing that people have managed to determine which GPS receivers are AND and which are OR.

For GAGA-1 I have two GPS units: one in the Recovery Computer and one in the Flight Computer. The Flight Computer is using a Lassen IQ which is known to work correctly on balloon flights.

The Recovery Computer is using the GM862-GPS which will fail. This is OK because it is used when the balloon has landed to send GPS location via SMS messages. But the failure mode is important.

I've been back and forth with Telit technical support and they claim that the module will simply fail to give me a GPS fix above 60,000 ft but that once the balloon is down again it'll restart automatically. Others claim that code should be included to automatically reset the GPS if it hasn't given a fix for some length of time. I plan to update the code to include an auto-reset after 30 minutes if no fix or no satellites during flight and recovery.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.


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