Roger McKinlay on Navigation

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

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.


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.

The Answer is….Insured Hitchhikers!

blogWith a growing tide of anti-establishmentarianism, is it me or are autonomous systems the last thing people want or need?  In an age which is looking for people to blame for everything, the last thing you want is to open the driver’s door or pop up the cockpit canopy only to find nobody there.

We still can’t reduce the cockpit head count from two to one, despite automation.  True, aircraft cockpits and ship bridges are not as crowded as they used to be.  But even if the aircraft captain is now a pilot, radio-operator, engineer and navigator combined, he or she still needs a buddy for back-up.  People – in the eyes of the law – are not the same as machines.

But why fight it? If we need people to blame, design them in.   If you want to travel down the M6 letting your car drive itself, what a shame if the technology is perfect but some dumb law says you need a driver.

The answer: insured hitchhikers.  Service stations of the future will have hordes of students clutching cardboard destination signs.  They hop in the front seat, get a free ride and sleep off a hangover.  You sit in the back and fiddle with your ipad.

Of course, the government will step in demanding that these pretend drivers have insurance.  But if autonomous vehicles are really smart, there will be no accidents and the premiums will be minuscule.  Sorted.

I can hear the technical purists moaning in despair.  Why invest so much and then have to pop someone in the driving seat for legal reasons alone?  It’s daft.

The world is daft.  Thousands of commuters into London have had their lives made misery by a labour dispute concerning who should be allowed to press a button to open train doors.  What is so magic about autonomous vehicles (and pilotless aircraft for that matter) that they should be free of such issues?

Prepare to Be Surprised

surprisePrepare to be surprised!  Systems engineers say it rather pompously; “Complex systems exhibit unforeseen behaviour”.  Same thing.  Prepare to be surprised.

Surprises follow hot on the heels of ill-thought-through bright ideas.  There is the (possibly apocryphal) story of a Frenchman who patented a bicycle anti-theft device: a six-inch spike coming up through the saddle to catch any unsuspecting thief right in the place where the sun never shines.  Bad news for the legitimate owner who is late for work one morning and forgets to disable the mechanism (and who is no doubt left feeling a bit like the UK Government on learning that final appeal regarding triggering Brexit article 50 rests with the European Central Court of Justice).

Cockpit doors designed to keep out terrorists are just as effective against pilots who have popped out to the Khasi.  Complex passwords are difficult to hack but are also impossible to remember.

It was encouraging to witness a very grown-up debate at the Royal Institute of Navigation’s international conference in Glasgow (INC16) about the challenge of making complex systems (and self-navigating autonomous systems are complex) behave the way we want them to.  The talk was very positive but the message was clear:  be prepared to be surprised.  No one has managed to pull off such feats without at least one surprise.  And surprises – not surprisingly – might set back our ambitions by a few years.  It was a good pragmatic view.  The art is knowing when a surprise is coming.

So next time you see someone with a fragile gait and watering eyes take pity.  They might well have been stealing bicycles but are much more likely to be involved in developing autonomous vehicles.  Or maybe it’s one of the Brexit negotiating team.

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.

Neurocognotechnonav thing.


I am delighted that the Royal Institute of Navigation is planning another conference on navigation and the brain.  It’s not about technology – although technology plays a part.  It’s not about human factors – although a better understanding of people should help designers come up with better products.  It’s not about neuroscience – but an understanding of what is going on inside our heads is essential.  There are lots of other things it is not about: immersive technologies, natural navigation, simulation and Pokémon Go.

Well actually it is about all of these things and that’s the point: all of them.  For a while now the RIN has been turning its attention to what we might call “the third person in the room”.  For years we have talked of the human-computer interface as if the “machine” and the “body” were the only parties involved.  The navigation computer knows where it is and the operator needs to understand it.  Oh the arrogance of designers!

For centuries navigators have been caught up in a love-triangle between their technology (maps and compasses), reality and “nous”.  Nous is the cleverest but often quietest member of the party.   The little voice in the head.  The mental model.  The hunch.  The tweed-wearing son-of-the-manse with a Morningside accent who apologetically tells brash Mr Technology that no matter how much he shouts about being in agreement with Mr Reality there is a small chance he is wrong.  “We wouldn’t want to be too hasty would we.”

So it’s time to stick up for Nous, the oft-forgotten third person in the room.  He’s been out of fashion for a while.  And just when he’s about to speak-up he’s blotted out by the bigger, brighter screen or drowned out by an even bossier Garmin-lady.  And if the fans of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles are to be believed, the world would be a lot safer if he was silenced once and for all.

So support Nous.  Keep your eyes open for a RIN conference in June 2017.  The problem is – what to call this neurocognotechnonav thing?   Finding the constituent parts of a NOUS acronym would be too painful.  I rather like NousTrap.

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