Roger McKinlay on Navigation

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


November 2015

Let’s Hear it for the Old Guys

old guy copy

The middle of November saw a great showcase event on Quantum Technologies at the Royal Society, organised by the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN). The turnout was excellent from many industries and the press was present as well. And there was genuine excitement as academics hinted at navigation sensors a couple of orders of magnitude more sensitive than current technologies can offer. The worlds of computing, communication, security and optics will also be impacted.


For those who have been steeped in the world of electronics this is a new experience. We’ve really only had two phases of electronics: electrons in vacuum (the world of the valve) and electrons in “solid state” which gave us the silicon revolution. Now the focus is on other properties of matter – unknown when electronics took off. Good bye electronics, hello “quantumonics”? (Not to be confused with “quantomics” which Google tells me is a livestock genome programme.)

Did I detect a passing Nano-g?

A researcher from the University of Birmingham explained to me that for navigation the real prize will be a gravity sensor capable of detecting a nano-g. “How much is that?”, I asked.   “It’s the gravity field your mass creates standing about five feet from me”, was the answer. (If you ask Google, Nano-G is a Malaysian supplier of waterproof concrete.)

Keeping it Grounded

Throughout the day similar conversations were taking place as people tried to get their arms around exactly what the practical consequences of this new research will be. And that is very healthy.

Too many so called technical revolutions in the past have been treated as being so amazing only the experts will understand them. The attitude senior management had to software early in my career was a case in point. It was only when software projects turned in to “holes down which banks disappeared” the boardroom took notice.

Maybe we’ve learned the lesson or maybe it’s just demographics. The fact that so many seasoned users and practitioners are taking such an interest in quantum technology is not just healthy but greatly increases the chances of it leaving the lab and entering the real world where it will impact businesses and lives.


The Two-Edged Sword of Technology


Technology versus Tech

One definition of technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Today so many such applications involve computing or communications the meaning of the word technology has morphed to mean phones, tablets and similar stuff. Technology has become tech.

The Sextant

Navigation and technology – in its true sense – go hand in hand. October saw some navigation low-tech making a comeback. The BBC’s Newsnight ran a feature on the US Navy’s decision to bring astro-navigation back in to the main syllabus. Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation Tom Cunliffe – with sextant in hand – gave his expert view.

The motives for this apparent step backwards are complex. The vulnerability of satellite navigation to interference is one very practical driver. But perhaps another is the recognition that technology is just a tool and the real responsibility lies with an individual. Navigation officers with a grasp of the basics will be better navigation officers even when just using GPS.

The Traverse Board

Sextants are modern compared to traverse boards. A picture of Royal Institute of Navigation Director Peter Chapman-Andrews appears on Alasdair Flint’s blog for Arthur Beale (the London Yacht Chandler) on the occasion of Peter being presented with a traverse board kit.

So what on earth is a traverse board? Wikipedia provides the description: “The traverse board is a memory aid formerly used in dead reckoning navigation to easily record the speeds and directions sailed during a watch. Even crew members who could not read nor write could use the traverse board.” Or put another way, a piece of wood with a compass rose painted on it with some holes for wooden pegs which enabled a junior crew member to take over while the skilled helmsman took forty winks.

Two-Edged Sword

The pair of examples perfectly illustrate the two-edged sword of technology. The sextant, in the hands of an expert, made navigation tasks that were once impossible, possible. On the other hand, the traverse board in the hands of an idiot probably caused as many maritime cock-ups as GPS does today. Technology can be used to break new ground or de-skill everyday tasks. The same technology can be used for both; it depends on the desired outcome. As time passes the original objective is often forgotten. The visionaries behind GPS wanted global accuracy hitherto undreamt of. They did not envisage truck drivers becoming wedged in narrow lanes in Devon.

What next

So what next? Peter Chapman-Andrews on Newsnight with his traverse board (assembled and coloured in)?

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