Roger McKinlay on Navigation

The personal musings of a Past President of the Royal Institute of Navigation

Can the UK Build Its Own GNSS?


Recent comments in the newspapers regarding Brexit, Galileo and the UK “going it alone” reveal some old-fashioned thinking about GNSS.  These systems are still thought of as big military systems in a rather unhelpful cold war-like way.

Better than Galileo?

For example, one question is already being asked.  “Would a shiny new UK system be better than Galileo or GPS?”  A good question.  Galileo was being sold as shinier and newer than GPS from the outset.

Any organisation which has found itself in a position of deep incumbency knows the issue well.  Systems which have yet to happen can claim to be anything; existing systems are kept down to earth by a track record, warts and all.

Yet for GNSS the argument is already outdated.  Technical performance is only one issue.  Other attributes – sovereignty, security and ownership – have come to the fore.  The GNSS market has grown up.

Service not System

And this is where service thinking has taken over from system thinking.  GPS is not “old fashioned” any more than British Airways or KLM are old fashioned airlines.  Satellite service providers continually renew their fleets the same way that airlines do.  (Ask the US taxpayer what it costs to keep GPS up to date.)

So, what of disruption?  Ironically, the big disruption has already happened in GNSS with the creation of Galileo.  The disruption came not from the technology (despite early claims to the contrary) but the fundamental idea itself.

And this is the key point about a UK GNSS.  No new great disruption is being claimed.  The emergence of new GNSS systems simply reflects the market maturing.  The sovereignty genie is out of the bottle and unlikely to go back in.

Suits not White Coats

However, old ideas take a while to shift.  The technical issues still dominate many people’s thinking.  The news of the launch of a new airline does not bring to mind a bunch of entrepreneurs trying to assemble their own Wright Flyer and – with a suitably aggressive schedule – producing something Dreamliner-size a few weeks later.  The image is absurd.  Yet when it comes to satellites and space, there is still a tendency to see everything as a race between boffins.

In the case of mature markets its more about finding the money, buying the right bits and knowing how to launch a service.  So, a better image might be people in suits, not white coats.  Just consider the airline board meeting at which Emirates decided to place an order for another thirty-plus A380s.  That’s some business case!


In Praise of Lazy Blogging and Reflection

gnss small

Every day I receive a barrage of communication from people who cannot wait to hit send.  The language of urgency prevails.  “Really excited to be…”.  “Can’t wait for…”  “Only 24 hours until.”  Why on earth would I want to read messages from people who never stop to think twixt eyeballing and sending?

Sometimes it’s worth stopping to reflect.  The UK Blackett Review, Satellite-Derived Time and Position: A Study of Critical Dependencies, has been on the street since the end of January.  That’s plenty of time for my copy to have gained the odd coffee ring, toast crumb and – dare I admit it – red wine stain.  I finally said goodbye to it last week, leaving it with Dana Goward (President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation and a contributor to the report) after a very relaxed breakfast in Washington DC.  (To be honest, the final “baptism” in Eggs Benedict made me loathe to carry it home.)

As the report has been accumulating stains, so has the world been changing.  The headlines say it all.  “Russian Spy Poisoning… 2016 Election Interference… Ongoing Operation to Hack Energy Grid.”

The true importance of infrastructure has emerged.  The story is no longer about server farms and out of date versions of Windows.  It’s about life style, values, transportation, energy, safety, health, economic growth.  Everyone depends on infrastructure, with the possible exception of a stylite, cross legged atop a pillar in the desert.  (Mind you, it would be embarrassing to wake up flat on your back in the sand, some foreign power having hacked your pillar overnight.)

It’s an interesting twist.  A report aiming to highlight our dependence on satellite navigation and timing has, because of the ubiquitous nature of GNSS, brought in to stark relief the critical nature of so much of this infrastructure life-glue we have accumulated.

Good news then that the report has been well received by the policy makers it was aimed at.  “But what are they doing about it?”, I hear you shout.  Patience.  At this very moment there is many a copy accumulating breakfast stains.

Of Ulysses and Elevators


Over the years I’ve been rather ground-down by posters in meeting rooms telling me how to have a productive meeting.  (Is it just me or are these the rooms with overflowing rubbish bins and the projector lead dangling from ceiling because the built in wiring has failed.)

No, meetings should be judged on results, not adherence to process.

The HQ of the Royal Geographic Society is not the easiest building to navigate.  Even after a refurbishment it has retained its labyrinthine corridors and mahogany display cases.  Not to mention the ancient lift that once stuck between floors whilst filled with Royal Institute of Navigation grandees.  (I think they are still there).  Whenever I visit I am convinced that I will meet a character in a pith helmet and empire-building shorts who will wave cheerfully and ask me if the war is over.  (The Boer one, that is.)

And it was in this building a month ago that the Cognition and Navigation (CogNav) steering group meeting got off to slightly ragged start because people could not find the room.  Over a period of ten minutes the assembly grew from a few people seated round a table to one needing more chairs.

The reason?  Lots of new faces belonging to people who had never been there before.  Full marks to the chair, Professor Kate Jeffery, for attracting so many new players.  The minor delay caused by navigating unknown corridors was well worth it.

There is a lesson here for any Learned Society.  Learning means change: new members and a continuously changing viewpoint.  Just as Tennyson’s Ulysses saw “all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move” so a Learned Society should be on the move.  CogNav – the role of the brain in navigation – is indeed part of the gleaming untravelled world.  And what of the fading margin?  For anyone not wanting to go anywhere fast, may I recommend Royal Geographic Society lift.

Off to Brighton with the Royal Institute of Navigation


Great to be working with Andy Proctor of Innovate UK on the RIN’s International Navigation Conference INC2017.  Joint blog here.



Roofless Efficiency


I’ve cracked it. There’s nothing wrong with satellite navigation.  The problem is roofs.  If God had meant us to live in houses he would have made satellite signals pass through roof tiles.  We’ve been filling the world up with structures that block satellite signals.  It’s unacceptable.

I blame the government.  Letting people put up roofs rather than buy an anorak is the lazy option.  Why has there not been more regulation?  Shopping used to be in open streets where one could stride out in wind, rain and as much EM radiation as you could shake a droopy dipole at.  Who let shops be put inside Faraday cage malls?

It’s not just satellites that are being discriminated against.  5G, WiFi, Bluetooth and remote-control garage door openers all work better without roofs.  The fact is that in the 21st century we ought to have realized that having perfect connectivity and location based services is more important than staying dry.

We need to start lobbying.  People need to know the truth.  SatNav does not work indoors, underground, under the sea, urban canyons, underground car parks, mines, sewage pipes or inside copper hot water cylinders.  The list is almost endless.  No more new roofs would be a start.  Then we can start taking the existing ones down.  Walls are only needed to keep roofs up so we can dispense with them as well, fixing the urban-canyon problem in a stroke.

And what of the new services – the efficient warehouses, goods yards and automated distribution sites of the future.  Smart cities, multi-modal logistics and intelligent transport systems all need access to satellites.  Take the roof off and give the workers hi-viz raincoats I say.  Somethings will be more difficult to fix.  Our Victorian forefathers carelessly built London’s metro system underground, forcing the adoption of wired signalling systems.  Didn’t they know about Galileo?

It’s tough but the alternative is even more scary.  We would have to admit that satellites are not the answer to all our positioning needs and invest in alternative systems and technologies.  We wouldn’t want to do that would we?

A Viking Helmet with an Anemometer?


How do you give users of a critical system or service some confidence in the way it is run?

The corporate models don’t work.  Dress the head honcho in a Dickensian top hat and the impression is of a scrooge who puts profit before staff-welfare.  Swap the hat for a 1940s bowler and commercial gain has given way to government bureaucracy.

Technology – or technologists – do better.  Moon landing Mission Control: a room full of monitors and shirtsleeves.  Or Thunderbirds’ Tracey Island – Jeff may have worn a polo-neck but the International Rescue boys all wore smart uniforms.  And there was Brains in his big glasses.  Yes, the techno-military model really does clinch it.

I still try to envisage what “mission control” might look like when sorting out a refund on my Oyster card or contacting my ISP.  It’s difficult.  And what picture does “Windows Technical Department” conjure up when an earnest Indian accent informs me that a virus has been discovered on my PC?  Houston Mission Control?  I think not.

If you can’t imagine it, it’s doubtful there’s much of a real organisation there.

Of course, navigation has had this magic techno-military mix from the start.  The smartly uniformed navigation officer on the bridge or in the cockpit; the caps of the lighthouse keepers; the wig of the Astronomer Royal.  I bet the navigation officer of a Viking long-ship had a special helmet, probably with an anemometer on top.

GPS came out of just this world. (The Mission Control one, not the long-ship.)  There really were rooms of people vigilantly watching the system 24/7, just as there were rooms full of incoming ICBM watchers.  There still are.  The “Galileo Services Agency” just does not paint the same picture of assurance.  It’s not its fault.  It’s the bowler hat effect again.

And the great thing about the uniform thing is it cuts both ways.  The wearer does have a job description but it’s irrelevant.  In the event of a crisis, the smartest uniform in the room takes the blame.  Uniforms pin down accountability in a brutal way that org-charts cannot approach.

So as governments in many countries try to work out who is ultimately responsible for essential services dependent on Position, Navigation and Timing, it’s time to reach for the org-chart or better still, issue a uniform.  Or just a hat.  A smart tricorn on which is mounted a whip antenna complete with a 1/72nd scale model block-IIF satellite?

Anything, just so long as who is in charge is 100% clear.

Or perhaps a Viking helmet with an anemometer…..

Towering Issues

towerFor those of us who have spent decades working in safety conscious industries the events surrounding a tower block fire in London are very disturbing.  The cause of the fire itself will be addressed by a public enquiry but the actions that followed the fire are also worrying.  The removal and testing of building panels raises a string of questions on the approval of designs, change control disciplines, the marking of materials, conformity inspections and the maintenance of design and build records.  The testing of the physical panels themselves appears to reflect a vote of no confidence in all that has gone before.

If the cause is austerity then in a well-organised business one would expect systematic austerity.  All buildings might be fitted with unsafe but compliant cladding in an effort to save money.  Instead it looks like we have chaotic austerity: the processes – or lack of them – are as much an issue as the technicalities.

Austerity is not much different from normal competitive commercial pressure.  After all, as the saying goes, all aeroplanes are made up of parts from the lowest bidder.  It is the processes wrapped around the design, manufacture, operation and maintenance of aircraft which keeps them safe.

So there are sheep and goats.  Well organised industries make mistakes but know how to recover.  Chaotic industries are…chaotic.  But the warning is for all.  No one can afford to be smug.

The excellent London Economics report ” The economic impact on the UK of a disruption to GNSS” is far ranging and covers both sheep and goats.  Some sectors will find it easy to respond to the findings; others will struggle.  And in the hi-tech world of satellite positioning, navigation and timing the technical issues are – dare I say it – more complex than building cladding.

The economic impact on the UK of a disruption to GNSS.  Commissioned by Innovate UK, The UK Space Agency and the Royal Institute of Navigation.



One Day All Systems Will Be Designed This Way


We love to be in control, and nowhere do we become more obsessed with control than in the world of systems and automation.  Once we’ve drawn the system boundary we can happily work in a world of our own.  People can be a problem but if they are kept away – the other side of a human-computer interface – control can be maintained.

But not everything can be controlled.  Navigation tools have always just been means to enable a skilled person to perform a wee bit better in a chaotic world.  Knowing your own location and having a map helps enormously but does not make the wind blow in the right direction, keep the storms away or ward off pirates.

But we have become used to controllable worlds.  The staggering thing about Amazon is that the mouse-click on “buy” is followed by the parcel arriving the next day.  But this is the exception not the rule.  Most of life is not like this.

Take the recent terrorist attack in Manchester.  The attitude of the press and apparently much of the population is that for such things to happen there must have been a failure.  Something must have broken.  It must be someone’s fault.  But when you look at the world of security and intelligence you realise that – as in the case of navigation – computer systems and processes are just tools to be used by skilled people in a hard-to-control environment.  Of course there has to be an enquiry and lessons learned.  Improvements will be made but don’t expect the world to be much more controllable as a result.

Nowhere is the “everything is controllable” myth stronger than in business.  The recent failure of a British Airways IT system is a case in point.  Much of running a business is controllable which is why dependence on IT systems has become very high.  But it’s easy to become obsessed with making a system reliable to the exclusion of any thought about what happens when it breaks, as BA have just discovered.  All systems break.  Ironically, many of the “non-business” bits of BA still have a healthy respect for how much of life is uncontrollable which is why it remains one of the world’s safest airlines.

So come to “Urban Wayfinding and the Brain” on  June the 14th.  Here the system boundary has been drawn around the uncontrollable.  There is no human computer interface; the people are on the inside.  This is real systems engineering.  One day all systems will be designed this way.

Urban Wayfinding and the Brain: 14 June. UCL, London.  “How neuroscience solves human navigation problems”.


Come to Croatia and Return with an Egg


Having become involved in a government document creating exercise I have been reminded of a fundamental quirk of language.  Half of the story lies in the head of the listener.  Like a cryptographic key, the experience of the user is needed to unlock the information in the message.

Civil servants make excellent wordsmiths but it is a moot point as to whether years of training produce clearer communication or simply provide the “crypto key” enabling them to understand those who have had the same teachers.

So often in communications the language is perfected just as the last vestigial trace of useful information disappears.

One simple answer is to work cross culture.  People operating in a foreign tongue seem to be far more thoughtful in their consideration of why things are being done before they dive in to the details of the how.  The extra effort needed to translate seems to force them to engage their brains and be economic, whilst all around are enthusiastically charging ahead without really thinking at all.

I’m sure this is one reason why the Royal Institute of Navigation’s “Croatian” conference – now in its 11th year – has tackled the issue of GNSS dependency so effectively.

Take a simple description of the GNSS dependency problem.  “Satnav kind of works really well, so well in fact that most people don’t bother carrying a map.  We all know that it is not quite the right sort of system for critical infrastructure and safety stuff.  We also know that one day, a cyber-attack or solar-space-weather thing will give those who have unwittingly become rather dependent on it a real bad-hair day, so what’s to be done?”

I know many techies who would revisit this paragraph for months to improve its precision.  People who know about GNSS want the right language to be used.  But they don’t have the problem!  Where the precision is needed is in the description of the dependency.  So why refine the GPS/GNSS/satnav thingy language?

Pedants still have a place.  At one Croatian conference a French speaking delegate claimed that that afternoon he had “laid on the beach”.  A passing naval captain commented, “You lay on the beach.  If you had laid you would have come back with an egg.”

The worrying thing is I have spent days in technical meetings stalled by technical pedantry that achieves very little and isn’t as funny.  It’s an affliction of technical people.

So come to Croatia and thrive on the multicultural atmosphere.  You might even come back with an egg.

11th Annual Baška GNSS Conference.  7 – 9 May, 2017

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