ECE Students Kozhaya and Kanj and Professor Kassas Win Best Student Paper Award at IEEE/ION Position, Location and Navigation Symposium

four men standing next to each other, one holding a certificate
From left: Dr. Gary McGraw (Conference Executive Committee Chair), Sharbel Kozhaya, Prof. Zak Kassas, and Prof. Michael Braasch (IEEE/ION Liaison)

Electrical and Computer Engineering students Sharbel Kozhaya and Haitham Kanj along with their advisor Professor Zak Kassas received the Best Student Paper Award at the 2023 IEEE/ION Position, Location, and Navigation Symposium (PLANS) Conference.

The paper, titled "Multi-constellation blind beacon estimation, Doppler tracking, and opportunistic positioning with OneWeb, Starlink, Iridium NEXT, and Orbcomm LEO satellites," developed an algorithm that can “eavesdrop” on any signal from a satellite and use it to locate any point on earth, much like GPS. The study represents the first time an algorithm was able to exploit signals broadcast by multi-constellation low earth orbit satellite (LEO) satellites, namely StarlinkOneWebOrbcomm and Iridium.

“The accelerated pace of development and integration of autonomous vehicles into our daily lives, from self-driving cars to urban air mobility to drones, is amplifying the limitations of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), e.g., GPS,” said Kassas. “Currently, GNSS is the only source that offers positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) information continuously and globally. We do not have a backup/alternative system, should GNSS signals become unusable, unreliable, unavailable or untrustworthy.”

Mega-constellation LEO satellites (e.g., SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper, etc.) could offer such an alternative. However, unlike GNSS satellites whose signals are described in publicly available documents, LEO operators typically do not disclose much information about their proprietary signals.

“Without knowing what the satellite is transmitting, we cannot use its signals for PNT,” said Kassas. To deal with this challenge, the paper developed a revolutionary blind spectral approach, which is agnostic to the LEO satellite constellation. It could essentially detect the presence of a LEO satellite, decipher its beacon and track the signal, from which we can produce an estimate of our distance to the satellite. “We applied the blind approach to four different LEO constellations, which transmit in different frequency bands and adopt different modulation and multiple access schemes: OneWeb, Starlink, Orbcomm, and Iridium NEXT, and we cracked all of them!” said Kassas. This was the first time OneWeb signals have been cracked for positioning and navigation purpose.

"I am proud of Sharbel and Haitham,” said Kassas. “Their tireless efforts, dedication and creativity have paid off to achieve this significant scientific and technological milestone. I appreciate the tremendous support of the ElectroScience Lab (ESL), particularly Mr. Jeffrey Blankenship, which was instrumental in allowing us to conduct the challenging multi-constellation LEO experiments to show off the capability of our new discovery. I am grateful for the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), and the Department of Transportation (DOT) for supporting this research.”

Since 2016, Prof. Kassas and his students have won three of the four Best Student Paper awards at the biennial IEEE/ION PLANS conference (2016, 2020, and 2023).