Roger McKinlay on Navigation

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

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.

Of Uber and self-stocking fridges.


Looking through the programme for the Royal Institute of Navigation’s INC16 conference there is a hint of “Life, the Universe and Everything”.  The topics are as diverse as ever.  Speakers will address navigation in space, automotive security, and the neuroscience behind 3D thinking.  Some of the papers are intriguingly topical: “sensing and cognition in mixed reality systems”.  You and I know it as Pokemon Go!

So is this the RIN deciding that if you look hard enough you can see navigation in everything?

Well yes – but only because it’s true.  We have grown used to finding things and people on the internet.  That is “finding” in the sense of “identifying” but not really touching.  It’s why the virtual world is –  well – “virtual” I suppose.  In this virtual world it is possible to steal someone’s identity without having to kidnap them, give them a concrete overcoat and drop them off Southend Pier.

The problem is this.  If these two worlds were perfectly tied together the benefits would be lost.  A virtual world perfectly locked to reality is no more useful than the real world.  It’s like printing off an e-mail, sticking a stamp on it and posting it.

So the secret lies in keeping the two worlds apart and only letting them touch where we want them to.  And it’s the touch-points that are of interest. Identity is one touch-point; so too is location.  The virtual world becomes a really useful world when things can hop out of it and land exactly where we want them to in the physical world.

We don’t want to know where someone is in order to send them an email but we want it to reach the right person.  On the other hand, we do want the dot on the screen to turn into a real Uber car but we don’t care what make the car is.  The fidelity of information at these touch-points is key.  I don’t want a bank transfer to be made to someone a bit like me; there’s no point in an Uber car turning up in roughly the right place.

Maybe those who coined the phrase Internet of Things missed the point.  Cyberspace is already full of things – real and virtual.  It’s the locations that matter.  Or put another way, things with real locations are much more interesting than thingy things.  Uber has changed the world in just a few years whereas the self-stocking fridge….

The IoT is dead?  Maybe not.  But long live the IoL – the Internet of Locations.

So come and learn how to tell your Ubers from your self-stocking fridges.  INC16.  8 to 10 November 2016.  University of Strathclyde.  Only a short fridge-ride from the Glasgow Airport.


Why cricket isn’t an Olympic sport.


Do any Olympic sports use navigation skills?  Divers and gymnasts show amazing spatial awareness but it’s not quite navigation.  The more you think about it the more it is apparent that navigation skills hardly feature at all.  Most competitors have spent the past four years training in an identical environment.  The only difference is the presence of other competitors.

Hours of repetition just doesn’t sound right for navigation skills.  Navigators, after all, prove their worth by boldly going where no man has gone before.

I have a theory that long ago orienteering used to be an Olympic sport.  The problem was, where did one stand as a spectator?   Where is the best place to see people making stupid mistakes and getting lost?  Impossible to know.  Second best was gathering at the last 100m straight.  It was not as much fun but at least you were guaranteed some action.  Over time it became clear that it was even more exciting to hold back the leaders to let the navigationally challenged catch up and then let everyone start the last 100m together.  Now the navigation bit is left to the competitors to carry out in their own time.  It’s called finding the stadium.

Earlier in the Rio games officials had to use bolt cutters to get in to a stadium having lost the keys.  This would make a great spectator sport but you would have to be given prior notice in order to get a good seat.  Sport only works in an unreal world of constraints and rules.

What makes the Olympics fun to watch is that all the action takes place in a perfectly prepared subset of real life where the objectives are 100% clear and opportunities for “doh – now why did I do that” silly blunders have been minimized.  Hence we do not see people achieving world-record times over 1000m but being disqualified for having accidentally run the wrong way.  We don’t see people turning up in the diving pool wearing fencing gear.  We don’t see Andy Murray arriving for the tennis final having left his kit at home along with his pack lunch.

No, sport is escapism and total cock-ups do tend to ruin the enjoyment.

Now why isn’t cricket an Olympic sport?  I rest my case.

Waking up on a traffic island holding a broken stick



I think it was the comedian Dave Allen who used to tell the joke of a drunk leaving a pub one night, in a coastal town, in a thick fog.  Worried about falling off a cliff he picks up a stick to tap the path in front.  After five minutes he senses a void ahead but to his dismay cannot find the route back.  He sits down and waits for dawn and the fog to lift.  Several hours later he wakes in broad daylight slumped on a traffic island in the High Street clutching a broken stick.

Who says resilience (or lack of it) in navigation aids is something new?  Something has to be done about it.  All sticks should conform to a British Standard.  Sticks should be regularly tested to ensure conformity.  (What’s brown and sticky?   A stick!)  Sticks that have been tested should be marked with a small label showing the date of the test and the initials of the accredited tester.  A priority should be given to sticks in the vicinity of pubs in coastal towns.

Or maybe not.  A recent chat with Tristan Gooley (the Natural Navigator – @NaturalNav) got me thinking about self-sufficiency.  For those not familiar with natural navigation, it is – to quote Tristan’s website – “the rare art of finding your way using nature, including the sun, moon, stars, weather, land, sea, plants and animals”.  The point is not only that you can find your way around using natural cues. Equally importantly, if you get lost you’ve nobody to blame but yourself.

Prepare to be shocked!  The same applies to GPS – or any navigation technology.  In fact, the principle applies to using social media, the world-wide web and the post-it on the kitchen wall where whoever took the last toilet roll out the cupboard is supposed to flag a warning.  Processes, computers and “other people” all make mistakes.   The “user” is the only casualty.

One day, when artificial intelligence, driver-less vehicles and robots are everywhere, life will be awful.  And then a job advert will appear.  “Wanted.  Key component of critical system.  Must be sceptical, suspicious and not always follow instructions.  Would ideally suit a human.”

Anything would be better than what we’ve currently got


“Why don’t we just try something.  Anything would be better than what we’ve currently got”.

At a recent meeting on intelligent mobility some of the – dare I say it – younger members of the audience were becoming frustrated at the lack of progress with driver-less cars.  One heckled, “Why don’t we just try something.  Anything would be better than what we’ve currently got”.

If only it were true.  Replacing the current boring human-driver system with a better one will be a challenge.  The number of road deaths in the UK is lower than it was when records began in 1926.  The rate – deaths per billion miles of journey – has almost dropped off the bottom of the page.

If one looks at the old-fashioned terrestrial aids used in air navigation it is clear that nothing stifles progress more than being in the dull land of the “good enough”.  It’s not that no one wants to move on. It’s simply the case that these old fashioned systems have dropped off the fix-it list.  In-flight loss of control and the mental health of pilots are causing concern; getting lost is not.

The internet, Twitter and the motorized tie rack (with built-in LED light) were not invented to solve any known problems but they have changed our lives.

But how dull!  Surely innovation is not about fixing problems but about having a vision? The internet, Twitter and the motorized tie rack (with built-in LED light) were not invented to solve any known problems but they have changed our lives.

Two factors need to be taken in to consideration.  One is complexity.  Complex systems respond to even the smallest changes in surprising and unforeseen ways.  The second is the observation that “optimal is rarely beautiful”.  Unlike simple products, concepts or ideas, systems that have evolved and been proven over time work much better than they look.  They are deceptive.

Put the two together and you have all the makings of a rift.  The experts know that the ugly old system – warts and all – is actually pretty good.  It just doesn’t look it.  Years of clearing the fix-it list have done their job.

Idealists, perfections and the plain ignorant, on the other hand, see such systems as having no legitimacy.  These are things that have arisen by chance rather than design.  In their opinion, a half-wit could do a better job.

The moral of the story: before you chuck out a well-established system, no matter how ugly, make sure you have at least one half-wit to work on the replacement.

Autonomous Vehicles and the Benny Hill Theme

saxI was interested to read of the recent incident of an ambulance being unable to find the London Olympic velodrome.  Actually, three ambulances failed to find the velodrome because “their GPSs had not been updated”.  The first one to reach the scene unfortunately arrived too late.  A tragic story.

In a pre-GPS-age I enjoyed a bird’s eye view of a fire engine pulling up outside my flat and several firemen sprinting to the front door.   They soon ran out again, huddled round a map, leaped back in to the engine, executed a U-turn and disappeared.  Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me but the whole incident appeared to happen at twice normal speed to the sound track of “Yackety Sax”, the Benny Hill theme.

It wouldn’t happen nowadays.  Nowadays the crew would have hosed down my flat anyway because it’s what GPS says.  (“There’s more to a fire than smoke and flames guv.”)  And then the other two fire engines would have rocked up and done likewise.

A few people should sit up and take notice.  One – I hope – is the DfT speaker at a recent conference who announced that as the majority of road accidents are caused by human error, the only way to make roads safer is to make vehicles driverless.  If only it were that simple.

A road full of driverless cars is not a humanless system – it’s just a driverless system.  The humans who are left can potentially do far more damage than any one car driver, or ambulance driver for that matter. And they will do damage if they are not even aware they have new responsibilities.

For every automating gadget that removes a person or a function, some new roles and responsibilities must be added to someone else’s job description.  It’s a sort of Newton’s Third Law.

One is tempted to say that a job such as “GPS Update Manager” should be recognised as being safety critical but this would be plain daft.  GPS is not that reliable anyway.  A better “new job” would be training a generation of ambulance drivers who have never known life without GPS to map read.  The velodrome incident was not a failure brought about by GPS, but by the societal changes that GPS has brought about.

I’m off to a smart transport conference later in the month.  It will be great.   And when I get frustrated by claims such as “the technology exists – it’s just a matter of overcoming the bureaucracy” I’ll close my eyes and let the rising strains of Yakety Sax drown out the speaker.

Take Control of Your Total Electron Count?


Having just returned from the 10th Annual RIN Baška GNSS Conference in Croatia, the Brexit debate seems far away.  A truly international crowd in a stunning location – Krk Island – pushed politics on to the back-burner for two days.

As usual we had several learned papers on ‘total electron count’ and ionospheric modelling.

Once upon a time the ionosphere was “sounded”, measurements being made by pinging signals up from the earth.   Now scientists use sources ‘from the other side’ and measure the effect of the ionosphere on satellite signals.  The ideal signals are those that come from the GNSS satellites themselves and here lies the irony.  What to the navigator is an error adding to his or her uncertainty, to the scientist is a data-point adding more precision.

This of course would be an exercise in lifting oneself up by one’s own bootlaces were the scientists not blessed with two advantages over the navigator.  Firstly, they know where they are and secondly, they work in collaboration with others to establish a global view.

It has always been thus. Navigators carry with them the knowledge of others in the form of charts and almanacs.  Measurements made by people who know where they are to help those who do not.  And when one looks more closely one sees evidence of this in GNSS itself.  The user’s receiver can only operate thanks to ground stations tracking the location of satellites to maintain an almanac.  In the past this “ground segment” was made up of learned court astronomers.

Modern communication has enabled these corrections to be real-time; the conference heard of the roll out of EGNOS Remote Integrity Monitoring Stations.  And future receivers will contain better ionospheric models thanks to the research of the total electron count wizards.

So what of those who want to ‘take control’ and not rely on this community of helpers.  Ded reckoning is one option but as the miles go by and the hours pass, errors just grow and grow.  That smugness of knowing your exact location will slowly give way to a state of uncertainty technically known as being completely lost.

Navigation is deceptive.  The loan yachtsman may appear to epitomise independence but is in fact totally reliant on thousands of years of international scientific collaboration.

Conference over.  Now back to Brexit.

The Mad Model-Maker in the Attic


google 2

I am thinking about writing a novel featuring a model railway enthusiast who has spent 40 years building a 1:76.2 scale model of Clapham Junction in his attic.  One day his wife phones to say she has fallen down a flight of steps and is currently on Platform 7 at Clapham Junction nursing a broken leg.   Our model-maker thanks her profusely, retires to the attic, and spends several hours fabricating a perfect model of his spouse lying prone on the platform.  He rings her once to ask, “right leg or left leg?”

Here lies my concern when I hear that Google has entered the world of high definition maps to guide the driverless cars of the future.  I am sure that the result will be a stunning carbon copy of reality that will enable me to take a virtual trip to Birmingham.  And if there is the odd glitch, so what. It is unthinkable that such a vast accomplishment would be without error.

But would I want to make the real journey on hard tarmac in a vehicle guided solely by its doppelganger buzzing around Google’s cyber toy-town?  A soft bug in the synthetic world will be a hard bug in the real one.

Of course there are technical solutions.  Some say the answer will lie in crowd-sourcing; constant user chit-chat keeping model and reality in step.   My concerns run deeper. What sort of people are building this new world?  The digital-age has favoured those who love scale, complexity and intricacy.  Model makers.  The online world is a model world but one we find very useful because information seems to live as happily in a model as in reality.

But people and things cannot live in a model.  The success of Amazon lies not in its models but in “fulfilment”; the mouse click really does turn into a parcel on the doormat.

I thought Google was heading the right way with its smart car.  I hope this HD mapping is not really a retreat to the comfort zone of the train set in the attic.

One other thought.  Map makers are not model makers.  Map makers simplify the world to make it understandable rather than strive to build an increasingly perfect copy of reality.  Of all the properties I would want from a map, “HD” would come pretty low down the list.

The London Tube Map is a case in point.  Now how do I get to Clapham Junction?


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.


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