Roger McKinlay on Navigation

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

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.


Like Putting the Empire State Building on Wheels…


Commercial property development has always been a risky business. Once a building has leapt skywards little can be done if it’s the wrong thing in the wrong place.

Space technology is too exciting; we have to bring ourselves back to earth (so to speak). Satellites are really just tall structures. 98% of space revenue comes from tall TV masts. Global navigation is possible because of tall GPS masts. Earth observation satellites are CCTV cameras on poles.

Yet at Satellite 2016 last week in Washington DC you would have thought that the satellite chaps were unique in having to take a gamble on the size, shape and location of the structures they were planning.

Their answer: flexibility. Digital payloads and movable spot-beams will make the space business cock-up proof. Like putting the Empire State Building on wheels. The right structure in the right place guaranteed.

Dream on. Any big project involves a gamble. You cannot build a business case for a bridge across an estuary by counting the number of people swimming across.

History has shown us that big projects are triggered by anything but a business case. For Galileo it was sovereignty. India has just launched its sixth navigation satellite for the same reason. For “new space” and space tourism it is…. vanity? For scientific missions…. philosophy?.

Maybe we’ve fallen in love with services and have forgotten the big building decisions that made them possible. GPS is not an app but 40 years of planning, building and launching. Governments will need to play a part too. Getting it right needs bravery and is hard work. End-to-end thinking is essential; a silo mentality is a guarantee of failure.

So space is not facing a crisis. A change of heart is needed. Maybe Galileo was just ahead of its time. And successes are successes whether or not the underlying assumptions were right or wrong. Serendipity?


Eee Loran.

thin copy

There is an old joke about a Yorkshireman asking a stone mason to inscribe his wife’s headstone with “Lord she was thine”.  He returns to find the completed stone bearing the inscription “Lord she was thin”.   “You’ve missed the e off”, he tells the mason. To this day the stone reads, “Eee Lord, she was thin”.

One cannot help thinking that a similar breakdown in communication led to the creation of eLoran, the planned terrestrial back-up to satellite navigation.

A brief discussion around the table at a recent INC16 planning meeting exposed the heart of the matter. In this age of innovation and the sharing economy there is a wide held view that if there is a real demand for a service someone will invent a way of delivering it and collecting the revenue. Good ideas emerge; it is the job of governments to encourage them.

Although most people would agree that some things can only be run by the state – defence, healthcare and transport infrastructure fall into this camp – such things are not popular. If the process involves negotiating international standards and spectrum the popularity falls further.

To those who think this way, the old Loran system represents the old economy. New navaids need new names. So why use Loran with or without the e? Officials have been putting the red pen through the word for years.

Invent a new word. Make it a misspelling of a real name and the dot-com domain will be cheap. Names like Lorane, Arleno or Elanor have a good ring to them.

But Loran will not win many new-economy friends. If eLoran finds itself Loaner it might all be in a name.

Now, remind me what the technical issues are?

The Internet of Twits


I am Being Followed

For the past few months I have been followed by a pair of navy suede boots. Wherever I go they seem to turn up. A few days go by without any sightings and then suddenly – there they are again.

Luckily this only appears to happen on-line (on sites which carry advertising). I say luckily. A few weeks ago I became disoriented in a tangle of back streets in Covent Garden and really hoped they would show up and guide the way. No such luck.

Ooh It’s You Again

The boots have joined a growing crowd of idiotic things which pretend to know my every movement. All they do is hang out in the same places I hang out and irritate me by shouting “Ooh it’s you again”.  My Oyster Card is the main culprit. It knows when I have entered a tube station and then loses interest. No help in navigation at all. And then when I “swipe out” it shouts “Ooh it’s you again” and charges me £4.50. The average speed cameras on the M4 are just as bad. If I broke down between cameras would they call for assistance? I think not. But the second camera is all too keen to shout “Ooh hello again and – my – haven’t you been tanking it.”

The Internet of Twits

This “internet of twits” is now being joined by the “internet of bluffers” – things which are lost but persuade you to tell them where they are. Top of the list is my phone which wants me to confirm I really was in the Pig and Whistle last Friday in order to provide me with a better location service. My satnav is a close second, asking me to turn left into Goggins Avenue in order to find its own location through map-matching.

Like some grand Turing Test, we are increasingly surrounded by deceptive technology which gives the impression of knowing much more than it actually does. The “Ooh it’s you again” effect may make the big wide world feel like the global village but it reflects our mastery of connectivity, not navigation. The business of knowing where things are in real xyz coordinates is much more difficult.

The Blind Hermit Vacuum Cleaner Mower

The final deception is in the form of autonomous vehicles. The robot vacuum cleaner may look smart but in information terms is little more than a blind hermit bumbling around the woods with a white stick. The ability to avoid bumping in to things is impressive but on its own does little good for the rest of mankind.

Where Navigation meets Connectivity

The muddling of information, navigation and communication is a recurring theme in this blog.  The magic happens when high integrity navigation meets high availability connectivity. Find out more at the Royal Institute of Navigation’s INC16 Conference, 8 to 11 November 2016, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.  You may even be greeted by a “Ooh it’s you again!”.

Paradise by the Sat Nav Light


I was interested to see James Taylor (President of the Royal Institute of Navigation) writing in Navigation News about sitting in a traffic jam, most of the drivers around him being illuminated by the comforting glow of a Sat Nav.

I guess few people realise that the wider Sat Nav system has no knowledge of their existence. At least that is the case for standalone Sat Nav. Once a smartphone is involved, who knows who is taking an interest.

For those trying to get home after the Forth Road Bridge closure Sat Nav must have seemed like a life-line. Outside helpers leading the way to safety.

Of course, unlike a phone, a basic Nat Nav is not in touch with any form of intelligence at all.  If there is a connection, it is not across the ether but backward in time to the intelligent (or otherwise) people who designed it. We tend just to notice the mistakes. The map programming guy who closed down his screen, popped out to buy a BLT, and came back having forgotten to show the restricted access halfway down Acacia Avenue in Little Snorking has made my life a misery.

This having been said, I do find the Sat Nav screen a comforting glow. I can forgive the designers the odd wrinkle. It is – after all – just a tool. And I am better off with it.

Will I feel as good in the future about the designers of the driverless car in front of me at a road junction? The one which has failed to pull out for ten minutes. As drivers we take calculated risks. Designers play safe and rightly too. One bad algorithm could put thousands of lives at risk and the designer could be liable. Here lies a fundamental law of automated systems which if it has not been stated before we should state now. “Designers are more risk averse than operators”.

Sat Nav is at its best providing guidance (and comfort) to people, not machines. I worry about the day when the comforting glow of Sat Nav shows nobody in the driver’s seat.

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