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Can the UK Build Its Own GNSS?

Posted By Roger McKinlay, 14 May 2018
Updated: 06 June 2018

Recent comments in the newspapers regarding Brexit, Galileo and the UK “going it alone” reveal some old-fashioned thinking about GNSS. These systems are still thought of as big military systems in a rather unhelpful cold war-like way.

Better than Galileo?

For example, one question is already being asked. “Would a shiny new UK system be better than Galileo or GPS?” A good question. Galileo was being sold as shinier and newer than GPS from the outset.

Any organisation which has found itself in a position of deep incumbency knows the issue well. Systems which have yet to happen can claim to be anything; existing systems are kept down to earth by a track record, warts and all.

Yet for GNSS the argument is already outdated. Technical performance is only one issue. Other attributes – sovereignty, security and ownership – have come to the fore. The GNSS market has grown up.

Service not System

And this is where service thinking has taken over from system thinking. GPS is not “old fashioned” any more than British Airways or KLM are old fashioned airlines. Satellite service providers continually renew their fleets the same way that airlines do. (Ask the US taxpayer what it costs to keep GPS up to date.)

So, what of disruption? Ironically, the big disruption has already happened in GNSS with the creation of Galileo. The disruption came not from the technology (despite early claims to the contrary) but the fundamental idea itself.

And this is the key point about a UK GNSS. No new great disruption is being claimed. The emergence of new GNSS systems simply reflects the market maturing. The sovereignty genie is out of the bottle and unlikely to go back in.

Suits not White Coats

However, old ideas take a while to shift. The technical issues still dominate many people’s thinking. The news of the launch of a new airline does not bring to mind a bunch of entrepreneurs trying to assemble their own Wright Flyer and – with a suitably aggressive schedule – producing something Dreamliner-size a few weeks later. The image is absurd. Yet when it comes to satellites and space, there is still a tendency to see everything as a race between boffins.

In the case of mature markets its more about finding the money, buying the right bits and knowing how to launch a service. So, a better image might be people in suits, not white coats. Just consider the airline board meeting at which Emirates decided to place an order for another thirty-plus A380s. That’s some business case!

Tags:  EU  galileo  space 

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Of Ulysses and Elevators

Posted By Roger McKinley, 18 January 2018
Updated: 06 June 2018

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.

Tags:  COGNAV  cognition  navigation 

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Roofless Efficiency

Posted By Roger McKinley, 05 October 2017
Updated: 06 June 2018

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?

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