Roger McKinlay on Navigation

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


October 2016

Comfy? Govan! INC 2016.


The International Navigation Conference (INC 2016) run by the Royal Institute of Navigation is only a week away.  (8-10 November 2016.  University of Strathclyde, Glasgow).  The conference brings together many diverse communities united in one broad topic: navigation.

So how do you herd the cats of GNSS, indoor positioning, autonomous transport, security against cyber-attack, resilience, and quantum technology into a slick three-day conference?

A management consultant might be tempted to construct a matrix.  Disciplines could be laid out on the x-axis: academics, industry, operators, regulators, legislators, consultants, advisors. etc.  Applications could be set out on the y: position, navigation, timing, indoor-navigation, autonomous vehicles, cognition, animal navigation…  And that’s just the start.  We all know people who could turn that in to a ten-day conference with 50 parallel sessions.

But surely this would be self-defeating.  The advantage of an international conference is lost if the aim is to draw in a diverse crowd only to segregate people on arrival.  Anyone with a background in research and development knows that there’s many a team that has accidentally re-invented the work of the team next door.  It is why laboratories, clusters, hubs and incubators all rotate around a single coffee bar.  (The Satellite Applications Catapult in Harwell is a great example).

So, it is good to see the INC 2016 programme includes opportunities for crusty sea dogs to chuck a glass of sauvignon blanc over a neuroscientist or whatever happens when these experts let their hair down.

And, of course, all will be united in the common language of the art, practice and science of navigation.

Which is more than can be said about the English language.  There’s a joke about a Glasgow woman who visits her dentist.  As she seats herself the dentist asks,


“Govan!”, she replies.

Educate yourself at INC 2016.


The warm wind of Anglo-French transport cooperation and the Brexit overcoat.


It was good to see the Transport Systems Catapult (metaphorically) covering up its union jack underpants for an event organized between the Catapult and the French Embassy Science and Technology Department.   The theme was “Intelligent Transport”.  The French host, Dr Jean ARLAT – Conseiller pour la Science et la Technologie – had hoped that the event would “bring a refreshing wind and … the opportunity to share opportunities and insights in a very enjoyable atmosphere.”  It sure did.  A glass of wine over lunch on a sunny autumn afternoon in the Residence of France sure beats a curled up ham sandwich on a rainy afternoon in Milton Keynes.

Global transport is international. It wouldn’t be global otherwise.  Those who sailed the oceans were quick to adopt conventions to facilitate safety and efficiency where it suited them (and to fire canons at each other where it didn’t.)  Modern air travel would be impossible without this culture of conventions and cooperation.

Consider the creation of a truly global satellite navigation system.  It followed the tradition of thousands of years of international scientific cooperation.  This community who in days gone by mastered the heavens only recently managed to agree an international model for the oblate spheroid we call planet earth.  A real achievement.

Local transport systems need no such international cooperation?  What if the EU had a say in the Rutland Rural Bus Timetable?  It’s both an unhelpfully extreme and perverse example.  The truth is, even where international cooperation is not needed, everyone benefits from drawing on a larger pool of experience.

So it was great to hear Professor Susan Grant-Muller from Leeds describing projects involving cities from across Europe learning from each other in how they solve their local transport problems.  Too often in the past, bungled infrastructure projects in the UK have used the title “pioneering” to mask what is in reality a cock-up.  (The too-small-from-day-one M25 comes to mind but perhaps this is unfair.)  It’s happened in other countries too.

So the new rules of engagement are clear.  “Pioneering” only means “never done before anywhere on the planet”, not “never done before in Bishop’s Stortford”.  If this means that someone from Oxfordshire County Council planning a Park-and-Ride scheme has to hop on an EasyJet flight to Toulouse or Stuttgart to see how it’s done there then so be it.  It certainly should not be seen as a “jolly”; one flight could save tens of thousands of pounds.

So there certainly was a refreshing wind of cooperation in the garden of the French Residence on a sunny autumn afternoon.   But days are getting colder.  If it is time to get out the the traditional pure wool navy blue “Brexit” overcoat, no matter.  It will soon be spring again.  The economic benefits are just too good to miss out on.  Not to mention a good glass of wine.

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