More precise positioning provides widespread possibilities

By Michael Appleyard and Dr Martine Woolf
Tuesday, 19 March, 2024

More precise positioning provides widespread possibilities

Safer travel, precision crop spraying, better real-time monitoring of livestock, virtual buffers to safeguard workers from site hazards, more accurate mapping of underground assets and heritage sites — the possibilities offered by the Southern Hemisphere’s first satellite-based augmentation system are varied and exciting.

Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand and Geoscience Australia are working together to bring SouthPAN — the Southern Positioning Augmentation Network — into being. This a major investment by the New Zealand and Australian governments in core digital infrastructure to improve positioning services across our land and maritime zones.

We are pleased to see the network fast taking physical shape, with the first of two uplink and ground control centres opened in early December at Uralla, NSW, and construction well underway at the second centre in Invercargill, New Zealand. These two centres will work in tandem to ensure we deliver a service that is robust, resilient and reliable.

So what does SouthPAN do? Satellite-based augmentation systems (SBAS) augment existing satellite positioning systems to boost their accuracy.

SBAS was originally designed for aviation safety by providing vertical guidance for approaches into aerodromes and improved search and rescue operating capabilities in a wider range of weather conditions. SouthPAN is expected to achieve Safety of Life certification for aviation in 2028, allowing aircraft to navigate in conditions they cannot currently fly in.

SouthPAN works by comparing satellite data against precisely measured positions to identify and correct discrepancies in positioning information. These corrections are sent to geostationary satellites and then broadcast to users, who can access SouthPAN signals throughout New Zealand, Australia and our maritime zones.

The network itself will be made up of two central processing and satellite uplink facilities (the Uralla and Invercargill centres), two satellite payloads, approximately 30 purpose-built GNSS reference stations (most located in Australia and New Zealand but also as far south as Antarctica) and a wide area network (WAN) connecting the ground stations and central facilities.

The difference SouthPAN makes is significant — it improves the accuracy of GPS from 5–10 metres to less than a metre, down to as little as 10 cm. You can imagine that if you’re spraying crops, mapping land, navigating a drone, looking for someone lost in the bush or doing multiple other tasks that require precision, this level of accuracy will make a major difference.

Early open services have been available since September 2022 for users with compatible devices. SouthPAN is free of charge and means users can access precise positioning without paying subscription fees for other correction services.

For technology innovators and customers alike, this knocks down a major barrier to innovation. We are looking forward to seeing the innovations that will flow from SouthPAN as homegrown solutions are developed for the Australian and New Zealand environments.

This early availability of SouthPAN services, years ahead of full operational capability, means the projected economic benefits of at least $7.6 billion over 30 years are already starting to flow. We expect the system to be fully operational by 2028.

Reliance on location services enabled by precise positioning data is universal across Australian and New Zealand industry and in everyday life, and this is only expected to increase. SouthPAN services will provide access to accurate and reliable positioning services relied on by a growing range of applications.

This will bring widespread benefits across utilities, construction, resources and many other industries. It will improve safety and efficiency in aviation, maritime and road transport, and increase agricultural productivity. Examples include:

  • Heavy vehicle automation, such as truck platooning, where vehicles can connect to each other as a group to transport goods.
  • Precision agriculture applications like precision spraying, yield mapping, controlled traffic farming, inter-row seeding, precision spraying and livestock management.
  • Personnel safety on construction sites through smart geo-fencing technologies that accurately identify the location of workers with key equipment, such as vehicles and heavy machinery.

Various industry sectors are already using SouthPAN’s services for purposes such as navigating drones and improving forestry management. Many GNSS receivers are already able to receive SouthPAN signals. This will increase as new models come on the market and we are working with a range of manufacturers to support and encourage uptake of SouthPAN.

Michael Appleyard is Director – Customer Delivery for Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand.

Dr Martine Woolf heads the National Positioning Infrastructure Branch at Geoscience Australia.

Top image: Cutting the ribbon at SouthPAN’s first dedicated satellite dish in Uralla, NSW.

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