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New tech revealed at the International Navigation Conference 27.02.15

This week I went to the Royal Institute of Navigation’s International Navigation Conference to discover

*What innovation does the navigation field need?

*And what solutions are on offer?

Before I get into the nitty gritty of what is new in navigation and what was discussed at the conference, you’ll need a little background. Navigation used to be simply about getting from A to B, with sextants, compasses, and the position of stars in the night sky initially used to the guide the way. This was later superseded by systems such as radionavigation and RADAR. The commercialisation of the US military global positioning system (GPS) was a complete step change, adding a level of reliability and accuracy, and making navigation and location data available to everyone.

Today, position, navigation and timing information from GPS underpins hundreds of thousands of services that we use, from financial transactions to energy supply, as well as the everyday SatNav.

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But GPS is not infallible. The vast distances satellite signals must travel from space to Earth make them weak once they reach us, and subsequently prone to interference. Solar storms can affect the signals and, perhaps more worryingly, they can be deliberately jammed – either  by criminals seeking to disrupt service or by personal privacy’ devices used to deter tracking. The implications of such disruption to GPS are severe and described brilliantly in this potentially prescient article.

Our dependency on these systems makes us vulnerable. And this brings me onto the main topic discussed at the conference: Tackling our over dependence on existing navigation systems. New technologies to backup GPS, and provide an alternative for the service, were presented by delegates from around the world. One of the innovative options presented is eLoran, an updated radionavigation system that is completely independent to GPS and exceptionally difficult to jam. The system has already been rolled out around the UK by the General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland for maritime users, and could provide a reliable back up to GPS timing in telecoms and financial sectors.

Another innovative backup system is using inertial systems, such as gyroscopes and accelerometers to provide completely unjammable data. Recent developments in quantum mechanics promise to totally revolutionise this sector. Highly accurate miniaturised atomic clocks could soon be used to provide highly precise timing signals. This would reduce the drift of inertial systems significantly and subsequently improve their use for when GPS doesn’t work. In the future, there was much talk about how atomic clocks will be shrunk so that they are small enough to fit on a chip in a phone. How exciting would that be as it would bring robust navigation to consumers?


We also discussed how GPS isn’t very dependable indoors. A lot of the researchers at the conference are exploiting the trend in smartphones and handheld devices to map indoor spaces. A range of new positioning and navigation technologies using everything from Kinect sensors to loudspeakers for navigating the indoors were unveiled. They promise to help people find their way around large complicated buildings like hospitals (who hasn’t got lost in a hospital and panicked?!), shopping malls and airports, as well as aid emergency responders, and retailers looking to tailor advertising and entice people into their stores. If we successfully achieve mapping the indoors, it would avoid the need for the costly implementation of new infrastructure.

So in summary, our dependence on GPS is being tested. It was exciting to see so many innovative technologies unveiled at the conference like eLoran, inertial systems and indoor navigation systems. The UK navigation sector is definitely onto a new era of human mobility and insight.

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