Roger McKinlay on Navigation

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


January 2017

Testing Times

testing700Let’s talk about tests.  They can prove something works – or doesn’t work.  They can identify good things in a heap of questionable things – or vice versa.  A test can prove the feasibility of a cunning plan.  Some tests are part of an exciting journey of discovery and others simply yield a pass or fail.

There can be unexpected outcomes.  Failed tests fail to give a valid outcome; test failures succeed in giving a valid failure.  Invalid tests fail to give a fail or a pass.  Donald Rumsfeld must have something to say on this.

The politics of testing are complex.  Bean-counters grudgingly provide funds so long as the test result will be a pass.  Engineers regret having given in to the bean counters when they find themselves with a public failure.  Regulators enjoy the occasional failure because it justifies their existence.  Politicians would like to ban all testing and instead have a parallel universe in which to conduct control experiments and a time machine to remove all uncertainty.

So, when one reads “that a 2016 test of the UK’s submarine-borne strategic nuclear deterrent ended in failure” what does it mean?  It could equally have been reported as “…ended having very successfully found a problem”.  In any well-established industry tests are mandated following any complex series of changes where some form of end to end validation is essential.  Such failures are universally met with a sigh of “thank heavens we found out”.

Navigation and guidance frequently feature in such scenarios.  The complex mix of technology and people demands grown-up testing rather than the suck it and see voyage of discovery.  A DNA print of a mature industry is its approach to validation and testing.

So where does the world of autonomous vehicles sit in the spectrum?  “Mixed” is the answer.  There are still many signs of immaturity.  Public “look it works” demonstrations are not tests.  Ironically, “look it doesn’t work” failures might give people a bit more confidence.  Labelling all nay-sayers dinosaurs is childish.  Claiming that all pioneers must take risks is neither true or relevant.  Our pioneering forefathers would have died for the modelling and simulation tools we have now.  Come to think of it – some of them did.

There are some good signs.  I have just read a report by Atkins titled Research on the Impacts of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) on Traffic Flow.  Stage 1: Evidence Review.  Department for Transport.  The grown-ups are arriving.

We’re heading the right way.  We must avoid the logic which says we have no choice but to take risks, as in the much-cited scenario, “If the plane is going to crash anyway, we should storm the cockpit and see if one of us can fly.”  It’s not how technical progress is made.  We’ve yet to see if it works for politics.



The Galileo Canary


How will Brexit impact Galileo?  It’s not just about politics but physics, over which God has never abdicated control let alone expects someone to take it back.  It’s about sharing the physical planet.

Take time as an example.  We all enjoyed an extra second in 2016 thanks to the International Earth Rotation Service’s coordinating efforts.

A post WWII climate of cooperation gave rise to some giant planet-sharing organisations. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (1947); The International Maritime Organisation (1948) and the International Telecommunications Union are key examples.

There have been occasions when some parties have not played ball.  In 1976 – as a radio amateur – I can remember the HF bands being trashed by the “Woodpecker” – most likely a Soviet Union over-the-horizon radar.  (These were the days when many a Hi-Fi pre-amp spontaneously spouted Radio Moscow.)

Regulations can be seen as market enablers or restrictors.  The debate is as old as the hills.  In the early 1980s a British radio comedy satirised the UK government’s penchant for deregulation.  In a spoof interview, a government minister announced plans to allow airlines to opt-out of air traffic control.

“Won’t there be accidents?” asked the interviewer.

“Of course there will – but the good airlines won’t crash and will therefore gain more market share.”

A framework for international cooperation is good for the market.  Nowhere is this more the case than in outer space.   Here’s where Galileo comes in.

There is no reason why the symptoms of the current tide of anti-globalisation (of which Brexit might be one) should change this state of affairs.  The UK’s continued involvement in Galileo is – after all – just a “new agreement” away.  However, if the cause really is an emotional populist movement against sharing this is of much more of a concern.  Sooner or later, babies and bathwater will be muddled.

Sharing lies at the heart of a global satellite navigation system made up of interoperable national sovereign systems.  The launches, the orbits, the frequencies, the power levels and the modulation schemes all rely on the grown-up sharing of space and the ether.

So maybe, rather than be pessimistic, we should look to GNSS as the miner’s caged canary.  It may not sing sweetly all the time – no matter.  If it’s lying on the bottom of the cage with its feet in the air – be concerned.

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