Roger McKinlay on Navigation

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



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

Mr Galileo, Eli Rahn, the MGB Roadster and the Elves from Prague. A Moral Tale.


Many years ago I had a newly married friend  whose pride and joy was his MGB Roadster sports car.  It had been “round the clock” once, never let him down, but was looking aged.

After a routine service the local mechanic, Murdo McDoomster, warned him that before long it would fail.  He’d be stranded on the hard-shoulder of the M1 and likely as not flattened by a truck.

Something had to be done.  A fatal accident was unlikely.  Much more probable was the car failing to start one morning and an important meeting being missed.

A new sports car was one option.  Mr Galileo – a local dealer – had tried enthusiastically to sell him one. It was very shiny on the outside but there were rumours of reliability issues.

“But it hardly does any more than the car I’ve got”, my friend had said.  “It’s just newer”.

“It’s not just about the car, it’s the lifestyle that goes with it”, was the reply.

“Well I’d certainly be late for a meeting in this car – the dashboard clock shows the wrong time”.

Despondent, my friend had stopped at a local newsagent.  There was a card in the window.  “Van for sale. £500.  Good runner.  Contact Eli Rahn on STANAG 4373.”

Maybe he could buy a van as a back-up?  It would be a quick fix.  He finally consulted his wife.

“I could buy a new sports car from Mr Galileo.”

“Of course.  But in the next few years we might start a family.  Life moves on.  Maybe those days are over”, she said.

“I could buy Eli Rahn’s van as a back-up”.

“Just remember, you’re surrounded by people trying to sell you what they’ve got.  You’ll have to work out what we really need and go and buy it.  It’ll cost money.  But do it sooner rather than later, before you miss that important meeting”.

My friend wasn’t good at making decisions.  Luckily, that night, a hoard of little gnomes in pointy hats and boiler suits appeared in his garage and remade his MBG Roadster with magic parts so it never broke down again.

The moral?  There’s no avoiding decisions, be they to do with changing cars or tackling GNSS resilience.  And do the sums properly.  Don’t rely on metaphors or magic.

As Bad as a Mile



I had a friend whose mother ran the village shop.  Just before closing time a small boy ran in and shouted “Have you got any lollipops left”? Having got the “yes” answer he hoped for he ran out shouting, “That’s your fault for buying too many.”

If I had been at the press briefing where the ESA Director General implied that the failure of nine out of the 72 Galileo clocks launched to date had no operational consequences, I would have been tempted to shout “that’s your fault for buying too many”.

Is this a navigation system or a clock experiment?  Even journalists are getting muddled now.  A recent article stated, “Something strange is going on with the Galileo satellites, and the European Space Agency wants to find out what’s causing it”.  Don’t tell me!  ESA are about increase the size of the satellites to hold eight clocks and Tim Peake’s going to be invited to travel with them to make notes in his jotter.

But it gets worse.  “If this failure has some systematic reason we have to be careful not to place more flawed clocks in space”, said an ESA spokesman, shortly after throwing six sixes in a row and winning the euro millions lottery for the third week running.  Of-course it is systematic!

So, should ESA postpone the next launch until the root cause is identified?

In his poem, As Bad as a Mile, Philip Larkin reflected on the cause of his apple core missing the waste basket.  He saw

“…failure spreading back up the arm

earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,

The apple unbitten in the palm.”

The journey to find the root cause of the clock failures must not only travel down copper wires and lines of code but also along supply chains and lines of management accountability.    The response by ESA to date has been worryingly and inappropriately scientific.  ESA may still be looking for the root cause but the rest of us are beginning to have a pretty good idea where it might lie.


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