The Decca Navigator System was a hyperbolic radio navigation system which allowed ships and aircraft to determine their position by receiving radio signals from fixed navigational beacons. The system used low frequencies from 70 to 129 kHz. It was first deployed by the Royal Navy during World War II when the Allied forces needed a system which could be used to achieve accurate landings. After the war it was extensively developed around the UK and later used in many areas around the world.
As was the case with LORAN C, its primary use was for ship navigation in coastal waters. Fishing vessels were major post-war users, but it was also used on aircraft, including a very early (1949) application of moving map displays. The system was deployed extensively in the North Sea and was used by helicopters operating to oil platforms. After being shut down in the spring of 2000, it has been superseded by systems such as the American GPS and the planned European GALILEO positioning system.
Principles of Operation
The Decca Navigator System consisted of a number of land-based radio beacons organised into chains. Each chain consisted of a master station and three (occasionally two) slave stations, termed Red, Green and Purple. Ideally, the slaves would be positioned at the vertices of an equilateral triangle with the master at the centre. The baseline length, that is, the master-slave distance, was typically 60–120 nautical miles (110–220 km).
Each station transmitted a continuous wave signal that, by comparing the phase difference of the signals from the Master and one of the Slaves, resulted in a set of hyperbolic lines of position called a pattern. As there were three Slaves there were three patterns, termed Red, Green and Purple. The patterns were drawn on nautical charts as a set of hyperbolic lines in the appropriate colour. Receivers identified which hyperbola they were on and a position could be plotted at the intersection of the hyperbola from different patterns, usually by using the pair with the angle of cut closest to orthogonal as possible.
Detailed Principles of Operation
When two stations transmit at the same phase-locked frequency, the difference in phase between the two signals is constant along a hyperbolic path. Of course, if two stations transmit on the same frequency, it is practically impossible for the receiver to separate them; so instead of all stations transmitting at the same frequency, each chain was allocated a nominal frequency, 1f, and each station in the chain transmitted at a harmonic of this base frequency, as follows:
The frequencies given are those for Chain 5B, known as the English Chain, but all chains used similar frequencies between 70 kHz and 129 kHz.
Decca receivers multiplied the signals received from the Master and each Slave by different values to arrive at a common frequency (least common multiple, LCM) for each Master/Slave pair, as follows:
|Pattern||Slave Harmonic||Slave Multiplier||Master Harmonic||Master Multiplier||Common Frequency|
It was phase comparison at this common frequency that resulted in the hyperbolic lines of position. The interval between two adjacent hyperbolas on which the signals are in phase was called a lane. Since the wavelength of the common frequency was small compared with the distance between the Master and Slave stations there were many possible lines of position for a given phase difference, and so a unique position could not be arrived at by this method.
Other receivers, typically for aeronautical applications, divided the transmitted frequencies down to the basic frequency (1f) for phase comparison, rather than multiplying them up to the LCM frequency.
Lanes and Zones
Early Decca receivers were fitted with three rotating Decometers that indicated the phase difference for each pattern. Each Decometer drove a second indicator that counted the number of lanes traversed – each 360 degrees of phase difference was one lane traversed. In this way, assuming the point of departure was known, a more or less distinct location could be identified.
The lanes were grouped into zones, with 18 green, 24 red, or 30 purple lanes in each zone. This meant that on the baseline (the straight line between the Master and its Slave) the zone width was the same for all three patterns of a given chain. Typical lane and zone widths on the baseline are shown in the table below (for chain 5B):
|Lane or Zone||Width on Baseline|
|Purple lane||352.1 m|
|Red lane||440.1 m|
|Green lane||586.8 m|
|Zones (all patterns)||10563 m|
The lanes were numbered 0 to 23 for red, 30 to 47 for green and 50 to 79 for purple. The zones were labelled A to J, repeating after J. A Decca position coordinate could thus be written: Red I 16.30; Green D 35.80. Later receivers incorporated a microprocessor and displayed a position in latitude and longitude.
Multipulse provided an automatic method of lane and zone identification by using the same phase comparison techniques described above on lower frequency signals.
The nominally continuous wave transmissions were in fact divided into a 20 second cycle, with each station in turn simultaneously transmitting all four Decca frequencies (5f, 6f, 8f and 9f) in a phase-coherent relationship for a brief period of 0.45 seconds each cycle. This transmission, known as Multipulse, allowed the receiver to extract the 1f frequency and so to identify which lane the receiver was in (to a resolution of a zone).
As well as transmitting the Decca frequencies of 5f, 6f, 8f and 9f, an 8.2f signal, known as Orange, was also transmitted. The beat frequency between the 8.0f (Red) and 8.2f (Orange) signals allowed a 0.2f signal to be derived and so resulted in a hyperbolic pattern in which one cycle (360°) of phase difference equates to 5 zones.
Assuming that one’s position was known to this accuracy, this gave an effectively unique position.
Range and Accuracy
During daylight ranges of around 400 nautical miles (740 km) could be obtained, reducing at night to 200 to 250 nautical miles (460 km), depending on propagation conditions.
The accuracy depended on:
- Width of the lanes
- Angle of cut of the hyperbolic lines of position
- Instrumental errors
- Propagation errors (for example, Skywave)
By day these errors could range from a few meters on the baseline up to a nautical mile at the edge of coverage. At night, skywave errors were greater and on receivers without multipulse capabilities it was not unusual for the position to jump a lane, sometimes without the navigator knowing.
Although in the days of differential GPS this range and accuracy may appear poor, in its day the Decca system was one of the few, if not the only, position fixing system available to many mariners. Since the need for an accurate position is less when the vessel is further from land, the reduced accuracy at long ranges was not a great problem.
In 1936 William J. O'Brien, an engineer, contracted tuberculosis which put his career on hold for a period of two years. During this period he had the idea of position fixing by means of phase comparison of continuous wave transmissions. This was not the first such system, but O'Brien apparently developed his version without knowledge of the others, and made several advancements in the art that would prove useful. He initially imagined the system being used for aircraft testing, specifically the accurate calculation of ground speed. Some experiments were carried out in California in 1938, selecting frequencies with harmonic "beats" that would allow for station identification in a network of transmitters. Both the US Army and Navy considered the idea too complicated and work ended in 1939.
O’Brien's friend, Harvey F. Schwarz, was chief engineer of the Decca Record company in England. In 1939 O’Brien sent him details of the system so it could be put forward to the British military. Initially Robert Watson-Watt reviewed the system but he did not follow it up, deeming it too easily jammed (and likely due to the existing work on the Gee system, being carried out by Watt's group). However, in October 1941 the British Admiralty Signal Establishment (ASE) became interested in the system, which was then classified as Admiralty Outfit QM. O’Brien brought the Californian equipment to the UK and conducted the first marine trials between Anglesey and the Isle of Man, at frequencies of 305/610 kHz, on 16 September 1942.
Further trials were conducted in the northern Irish Sea in April 1943 at 70/130 kHz. It was decided that the original frequencies were not ideal, and a new system using a 14 kHz inter-signal spacing was selected. This led to the common 5, 6, 8 and 9f frequencies, used throughout the life of the Decca system. Note that 7f was reserved for a LORAN-like extension, but never developed. A follow-up test was carried out in the Irish Sea in January 1944 to test a wide variety of upgrades and production equipment. By this time the competing Gee system was known to the Admiralty and the two systems were tested head-to-head under the code names QM and QH. QM was found to have better sea-level range and accuracy, which led to its adoption.
A three-station trial was held in conjunction with a large-scale assault and landing exercise in the Moray Firth in February/March 1944. The success of the trials and the relative ease of use and accuracy of the system resulted in Decca receiving an order for 27 Admiralty Outfit QM receivers. The receiver consisted of an electronics unit with two dials and was known to its operators as the "Blue Gasmeter Job". A Decca chain was set up, consisting of a master station at Chichester and slaves at Swanage and Beachy Head. A fourth, decoy, transmitter was located in the Thames Estuary as part of the deception that the invasion would be focussed on the Calais area.
21 minesweepers and other vessels were fitted with Admiralty Outfit QM and on 5 June 1944 17 of these ships used it to accurately navigate across the English Channel and to sweep the minefields in the planned areas. The swept areas were marked with buoys in preparation for the Normandy Landings.
After the initial ship tests, Decca conducted tests in cars, driving in the Kingston By-Pass area to verify receiver accuracy. In the car installation, it was found possible to navigate within an individual traffic lane. The company entertained high hopes that the system could be used in aircraft, to permit much more precise navigation in the critical airspace around airports and urban centers where traffic density was highest.
After the end of World War II the Decca Navigator Co. Ltd. was formed (1945) and the system expanded rapidly, particularly in areas of British influence; at its peak it was deployed in many of the world's major shipping areas. More than 15,000 receiving sets were in use aboard ships in 1970. There were 4 chains around England, 1 in Ireland and 2 in Scotland, 12 in Scandinavia (5 each in Norway and Sweden and 1 each in Denmark and Finland), a further 4 elsewhere in northern Europe and 2 in Spain.
In the late 1950s an experimental Decca chain was set up in the United States, in the New York area, to be used for navigating the Vertol 107 helicopters of New York Airways. These helicopters were operating from the principal local airports—John F. Kennedy Airport on Long Island, Newark Airport in New Jersey, LaGuardia Airport in the Borough of Queens, nearer to Manhattan, and a site on the top of the (then) PanAm Building on Park Avenue. Use of Decca was essential because its signals could be received down to sea level, were not subject to the line-of-sight limitations of VOR/DME and did not suffer the slant-range errors that create problems with VOR/DME close to the transmitters. The Decca installations in the New York Airways helicopters included the unique Decca 'roller map' displays that enabled the pilot to see his or her position at a glance, a concept infeasible with VOR/DME. This chain installation was considered highly controversial at the time, for political reasons. This led to the U.S. Coast Guard, under instructions from the Treasury Department to which it reported, banning the use of Decca receivers in ships entering New York harbor for fear that the system might create a de facto standard (as it had become in other areas of the world). It also served to protect the marketing interests of the Hoffman Electronics division of ITT, a principal supplier of VOR/DME systems, that Decca might have been poised to usurp.
This situation was exacerbated by the workload problems of the Air Traffic Controllers Association (ATCA), under its executive director Francis McDermott, whose members were forced to use radar data on aircraft positions, relaying those positions by radio to the aircraft from their control locations. An example of the problem, cited by experts, was the collision of a Boeing 707 and a Lockheed Constellation over Staten Island, New York, that—according to some experts—could have been avoided if the aircraft had been Decca equipped and could not only have determined their positions more precisely but would not have suffered from the rho-theta position errors inherent in VOR/DME.
Other chains were established in Japan (6 chains); Namibia and South Africa (5 chains); India and Bangladesh (4 chains); Canada (4 chains around Newfoundland and Nova Scotia); North-West Australia (2 chains); the Persian Gulf (1 chain with stations in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates and a second chain in the north of the Gulf with stations in Iran) and the Bahamas (1 chain). Four chains were planned for Nigeria but only 2 chains were built and these did not enter into public service. Two chains in Vietnam were used during the Vietnam War for helicopter navigation, with limited success. During the Cold War period, following WWII, the R.A.F. established a confidential chain in Germany. The Master station was in Bad Iburg near Osnabrück and there were two Slaves. The purpose of this chain was to provide accurate air navigation for the corridor between Western Germany and Berlin in the event that a mass evacuation of allied personnel may be required. In order to maintain secrecy, frequencies were changed at irregular intervals.
Decca, Racal, and the closedown
Racal, the UK weapons and communications company, acquired Decca in 1980. Claiming the acquisition was to acquire Decca's radar company, rather than the avionics side of the business, it sold off parts including Decca Navigator.
The monopoly on leased, not purchased, receivers by Decca generated great wealth for the company. This monopoly was later broken in the early 1980s when receivers could be purchased by users, thereby reducing the cost following the lapse of the patent on the basic system technology.
The company Aktieselskabet Dansk Philips (The limited company Danish Philips, ap for short) started manufacturing receivers that indicated the position (longitude and latitude) of a vessel directly in degrees and minutes with two decimals (originally in datum ED50 only). So the resolution indicated by the display was better than ±9.3 m, much better than the position accuracy of the Decca system. With these receivers onboard there was no need for the special Decca maps anymore. As users didn't pay rental for using the system, these receivers became very popular in fishing vessels and leisure crafts.
In the ensuing court battle Decca lost the monopoly, and that signalled the beginning of the end. Income dwindled and eventually, the UK Ministry of Transport stepped in, having the lighthouse authorities take responsibility for operating the system in the early 1990s.
A ruling from the European Union forced the UK government to withdraw funding – for fishermen users – and started the process which eventually resulted in the system being closed down and the installations scrapped.
The Decca Navigator System provided by the general lighthouse authorities ceased to operate at midnight on 31 March 2000. The Irish chain provided by Bórd Iascaigh Mhara continued transmitting until 19 May 2000.
Japan holds the distinction of being the last bastion of Decca having closed down the Hokkaidō chain (9C) in March 2001. This was one year later than the UK closure. Hokkaidō was also the first Decca chain to open in Japan in the year 1967.
A more accurate system named Hi-Fix was developed using signalling in the 1.6 MHz range. It was used for specialised applications such as precision measurements involved with oil-drilling and by the Royal Navy for detailed mapping and surveying of coasts and harbours. The Hi-Fix equipment was leased for a period with temporary chains established to provide coverage of the area required, Hi-Fix was commercialised by Racal Survey in the early 1980s. An experimental chain was installed with coverage of central London and receivers placed in London buses and other vehicles to demonstrate an early vehicle location and tracking system. Each vehicle would report its location automatically via a conventional VHF two-way radio link, the data added to a voice channel. A forerunner to a system employed by London black cabs in the 1990s using GPS and now the widespread use of GSM, 3G and Wi-Fi geolocation applications.
Another application was developed by the Bendix Pacific division of Bendix Corporation, with offices in North Hollywood, California, but not deployed: PFNS—Personal Field Navigation System—that would enable individual soldiers to ascertain their geographic position, long before this capability was made possible by the satellite-based GPS (Global Positioning System.
A further application of the Decca system was implemented by the U.S. Navy in the late 1950s and early 1960s for use in the Tongue of the Ocean/Eleuthera Sound area near The Bahamas, separating the islands of Andros and New Providence. The application was for sonar studies made possible by the unique characteristics of the ocean floor.
An interesting characteristic of the Decca VLF signal discovered on BOAC, later British Airways, test flights to Moscow, was that the carrier switching could not be detected even though the carrier could be received with sufficient strength to provide navigation.[clarification needed] Such testing, involving civilian aircraft, is quite common and may well not be in the knowledge of a pilot.
The 'low frequency' signalling of the Decca system also permitted its use on submarines. One 'enhancement' of the Decca system was to offer the potential of keying the signal, using Morse code, to signal the onset of nuclear war. This was never optioned by the UK government. Messages were clandestinely sent, however, between Decca stations thereby bypassing international telephone calls, especially in non-UK chains.
A long range trans North Atlantic system was in operation from the mid-1950s. It was called DECTRA. It utilised two stations in Newfoundland and two in Scotland. The transmissions used normal "pattern" transmitters of a much higher power than on standard DECCA frequencies. It was intended as an air navigational aid.
Special DECCA towers
- Puckeridge DECCA tower
- Zeven DECCA-transmitter
- * Walter Blanchard, "Hyperbolic Airborne Radio Navigation Aids — A Navigator's View of their History and Development", The Journal Of Navigation, Volume 44 Number 3 (September 1991)
- A modified version is = Jerry Proc, "The GEE System", 14 January 2001
- The Decca Navigator - Principles and Performance of the System, The Decca Navigator Company Limited, July 1976
- Night Passage to Normandy, Lieutenant-Commander Oliver Dawkins, R.N.V.R, Decca, 1969
- The Decca Navigator System on D-Day, 6 June 1944, An Acid Test, Commander Hugh St. A. Malleson, R.N. (Ret.)
- Hyperbolic Radionavigation Systems, Compiled by Jerry Proc VE3FAB, 2007 
- Navigation Systems: A Survey of Modern Electronic Aids, ed. G.E. Beck, van Nostrand Reinhold, 1971