WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force awarded Boeing, ITT Exelis and the U.S. arm of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. $3.8 million in research contracts late last year in an effort to bolster the current GPS navigation constellation.

The studies would examine how to improve the accuracy, coverage and efficiency of GPS by using smaller satellites. Specifically, the changes would help GPS users in hard-to-reach areas such as urban or mountain terrains. ITT Exelis of McLean, Va., received the largest contract, with a base value of $2.15 million and a potential award fee of $159,291 according to Danielle Babbitt, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. Engineers are hoping to discover ways to reduce the size, weight and power of GPS satellites, according to a Jan. 23 press release from Exelis, which has been the navigation payload supplier throughout the history of the GPS program.

The design work begins in January and runs until April 28, 2014, Babbitt said in an emailed response to questions. The work will be performed in New Jersey, Exelis said.

Boeing’s contract is worth $1.38 million, plus a potential award fee of $96,504, and runs until Nov. 27, 2013, Babbitt said. Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., has built 40 GPS satellites since 1978, including the GPS 2F series satellites now being launched.

On Jan. 18, Surrey Satellite Technology US LLC of Englewood, Colo., the U.S. arm of British small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., announced it also had been tapped for new approaches to satellite navigation. That contract, valued at $160,931, expires July 22, 2013.

Surrey’s parent company, a division of Astrium Satellites of Europe, has a key contracting role in Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system, now under construction.

At a Jan. 17 Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the current GPS constellation, with more than 24 satellites, was healthy and robust. But he said the Air Force is interested in augmenting the system with smaller, simpler satellites.

“We’ve done about all we can do — in fact we’ve done more than we’re supposed to do in terms of numbers of satellites,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to look at this cheaper little navigation-only satellite.”



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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...