Boeing Sees Future In GPS Business

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Boeing is continuing to invest in GPS technologies with an eye toward cashing in as the U.S. Air Force considers alternative approaches to satellite-based positioning, navigation and timing.

Craig Cooning, vice president of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, said Aug. 19 that Boeing was committed to staying in the GPS business. Boeing is prime contractor on the GPS 2F satellites now being launched, but lost to rival Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver in the competition to build the next-generation GPS 3 system, slated to begin launching within the next two years.

“Although we’re going to complete the GPS 2F contract this year, we’re going to continue to make the appropriate investments because we believe our technology and the expertise of our people in our electronic product is something ultimately that the government is going to want,” Cooning told reporters, who were visiting Boeing’s facilities on a trip whose expenses were paid by the company.  “One of things we’re doing is we’re continuing the game on GPS.”

Cooning’s use of the term “electronic product” was a reference to Boeing’s as yet unproven 702SP satellite platform, which uses lightweight electric propulsion systems to maneuver.  The weight savings enable Boeing to launch the satellites in pairs aboard a single rocket. 

Lockheed Martin is under firm contract to build eight GPS 3 satellites, and the Air Force in June signaled its intent to buy another 12 from the company.  The Air Force is considering investing in the hardware necessary to launch the GPS 3 satellites two at a time on a single rocket, beginning with the ninth platform.

But Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has raised the possibility of taking the GPS program in a new direction after the satellites already under contract are launched.

“We’re looking at alternate architectures for the GPS payload of the future, digital alternative on how you do GPS in the future,” Cooning said. “When we bid GPS 3 … we actually bid it with a payload design. We think there’s benefit in the Air Force having alternate payload suppliers for GPS and that may be something in the future that they would find interesting. So we don’t want to get out of that business.” 

Boeing also is one of three companies that received contracts in January to study how to improve the accuracy, coverage and efficiency of GPS using smaller satellites.

“That continues some GPS business and we believe we have a lot to offer there and we’ll continue to make those investments so when the Air Force does come back and says, ‘We’re looking for different ways or other ways to do the GPS mission,’” Cooning said.

He also acknowledged that the GPS 2F program was not particularly profitable for Boeing.  The company exceeded its development and production contracts by more than $250 million on the 2F line and was docked award fees because of the overruns and delays.

The fifth GPS 2F satellite is expected to launch Oct. 17 aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.