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Ensuring robust timing for the future

Ensuring robust timing for the future


We are awoken in the morning by the alarms on our smartphones, synchronised to our wake-up times by a network of satellites overhead. This same technology tracks

our location on our morning runs and commutes. We boil the kettle to make a cup of tea with electricity from the grid – which is itself synchronised by satellite-based timing. On the platform at the train station, we see on the overhead signs that the train is delayed by one minute, which we know, thanks to coordination of its GPS location with the local station.

Unknowingly, we reap the benefits of technologies that can precisely detect time and location every single day. Even just on our smartphones, we have a direct line to this invisible yet integral utility that underpins much of the infrastructure and systems that keep the world turning. It has been estimated that satellite-based positioning, navigation and timing services – the global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), such as GPS – directly support over £250 billion (13.4%) of the UK economy. As a result, a breach or failure in GNSS can cause a large range of problems with services we rely on, not to mention potentially costing the UK economy over £1 billion a day1.

NPL, through its National Timing Centre (NTC) programme, is developing an alternative, potentially primary solution for future timing, which will mitigate the vulnerabilities of GNSS. Many aspects of UK industry and society require increasingly precise time, whether it’s at home on our devices, the telecoms networks, energy, broadcast or in the finance industry where the time margins used are unfeasibly fine: one second for voice trading, one millisecond for electronic trading, and just 100 microseconds for high-frequency trading – all coordinated to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). An alternative timekeeping source is crucial to help prevent any serious impact to all of the above if something were to occur to the signals received via GNSS. They will also future-proof society as we develop smart cities, autonomous vehicles and communications.

The NTC programme will provide the resilience needed to protect critical national infrastructure, keeping essential services running and ensuring trust in new technologies. It will enable the UK to move away from reliance on GNSS, like GPS, and leverage a range of time and frequency distribution technologies including fibre, communication satellites, and terrestrial broadcasts, alongside GNSS.

However, in order for the programme to achieve its aims of improving resilience to strengthen our society, we need to ensure we have the skills and workforce to implement such infrastructure. The programme is responding to the specialist skills shortage in time and synchronisation solutions through specialist, apprentice and post-graduate training opportunities.

The most recent training offering is a series of course from NPL’s National Timing Centre (NTC) Programme, which includes an introduction to time and frequency measurement and an introduction to clock performance course. Both are one day, at no charge, courses which aim to equip the next generation of specialists. They are suitable for anyone interested in the subject, from students and entry-level scientists and engineers, to professions in many different industry sectors for which time and frequency plays a role.  

This NPL certified course series is in partnership with the NPL Quantum Programme and will help people to build skills in time and frequency to support the maintenance and innovation required for many sectors of society to function properly.

Ensuring we have large bank of specialists trained and qualified in this area will support the NTC programme in its ambitions to enable innovation and the acceleration of new technologies such as smart grids, 5G, factories of the future, smart cities and connected autonomous vehicles.

Over the next two years the programme will be rolling out systems to ensure split-second timing is available wherever it’s needed, in sectors such as the energy, broadcast or finance industry. More resilient timing systems that are independent of GNSS will help society weather solar storms and resist jamming – keeping at bay disruption to the way we live our lives.

Find out more here: National Timing Centre – NPL



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