Roger McKinlay on Navigation

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


March 2016

Birdy McBirdface at Royal Holloway


Maybe NERC underestimated the power of social media and the playground-humour of the British public when the on-line poll to name its latest polar research ship delivered the winner “Boaty McBoatface”.

A decade or so ago, had the Royal Institute of Navigation run a competition to name the greatest navigator, suggestions would have included Columbus, Magellan and da Gama.  But since Air Commodore Pinky Grocott inspired the creation of the Animal Navigation Group (ANG), “Birdy McBirdface” is now in the frame.  April will see animal navigation experts gather for the ninth RIN international conference on animal navigation.  RIN 16 will cover Orientation & Navigation in Birds, Humans & Other Animals.  The list of topics is intriguing: Orientation, Migration, Neurobiology, Behavioural Ecology, Spatial Cognition, Spin Chemistry, Sensory Physiology, Physics and Bionav.

Perhaps the biggest contribution the ANG has made to the Institute has been a friendly reminder of how little we know.  Navigation practitioners and technologist tend to feel they are “winning” and approaching a state of total knowledge.  Our scientists, on the other hand, are besotted with “the arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world” and if they drag some slightly complacent navigators with them it is no bad thing.  Animal studies have helped our understanding of cognition and the workings of the human brain.  This has led to research in new materials and sensors: the world of complex polymers and quantum effects.

I cannot compete with such intellect.  (At one conference I tried to pass myself off as an expert in Crustacean Navigation having just travelled from Charing-crustacean to Kings-crustacean on the Northern Line.)

And regarding Birdy McBirdface, perhaps we now have a name for the Arctic tern, the emblem of the Institute.

RIN 16. Orientation & Navigation Birds, Humans & Other Animals.  Royal Holloway College, London. 13 to 15 April . Conference and Events Manager, Sally-Anne Cooke. 44 (0) 20 7591 3135.



Like Putting the Empire State Building on Wheels…


Commercial property development has always been a risky business. Once a building has leapt skywards little can be done if it’s the wrong thing in the wrong place.

Space technology is too exciting; we have to bring ourselves back to earth (so to speak). Satellites are really just tall structures. 98% of space revenue comes from tall TV masts. Global navigation is possible because of tall GPS masts. Earth observation satellites are CCTV cameras on poles.

Yet at Satellite 2016 last week in Washington DC you would have thought that the satellite chaps were unique in having to take a gamble on the size, shape and location of the structures they were planning.

Their answer: flexibility. Digital payloads and movable spot-beams will make the space business cock-up proof. Like putting the Empire State Building on wheels. The right structure in the right place guaranteed.

Dream on. Any big project involves a gamble. You cannot build a business case for a bridge across an estuary by counting the number of people swimming across.

History has shown us that big projects are triggered by anything but a business case. For Galileo it was sovereignty. India has just launched its sixth navigation satellite for the same reason. For “new space” and space tourism it is…. vanity? For scientific missions…. philosophy?.

Maybe we’ve fallen in love with services and have forgotten the big building decisions that made them possible. GPS is not an app but 40 years of planning, building and launching. Governments will need to play a part too. Getting it right needs bravery and is hard work. End-to-end thinking is essential; a silo mentality is a guarantee of failure.

So space is not facing a crisis. A change of heart is needed. Maybe Galileo was just ahead of its time. And successes are successes whether or not the underlying assumptions were right or wrong. Serendipity?


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