Out in Front: An Open or Shut Case

November 1, 2010  - By
Image: GPS World

Engineers are an eager lot, by and large. They like talking about their work, openly showing information and results, testing their work against data and alternate hypotheses, getting feedback and even critique from colleagues near and far. They value an iterative, elaborative, collaborative process.

Politicians and business managers, on the other hand, tend to the dour. They would rather not show their hand, nor do they care to hear what you think of their organization’s work, citing intellectual property or national security reasons.

This is not just about last month’s abrupt withdrawal of a session’s worth of Galileo papers from the showcase rank of the European Navigation Conference (see story, page 14). It extends across governance of all GNSS, and ultimately affects the frontiers of knowledge everywhere. GLONASS has never been particularly forthcoming with technical details, while Compass has taken reticence to new heights. Or depths.

The socialist countries have not taken much heat for this practice, perhaps because it is assumed to be part of their political culture. Europe, on the other hand, surprises us a bit. It may be a sign of the changing of the times, the tightening of the GNSS space race. Once Galileo held unquestioned second place as the GNSS of choice to combine with GPS. No longer. GLONASS revives itself on practically a daily basis, and Compass goes about launching satellites with quiet regularity — 
although without much useful information on signal structure.

The GPS Wing of the U.S. Air Force deserves commendation for the frankness with which it has discussed recent problems. Even the Europeans admitted, “ION was a little better this year. The Americans talked about the failures they had, the problems with their ground stations and satellites.” At least one prominent U.S. government  contractor, however, has moved in the opposite direction.

European system managers have grown cautious, and stress the importance of protecting intellectual property. “We were too open before.” The case of the behavior of atomic clocks, for example, comes up in discussion. “You take sx months to find a solution, and then give it away in one session. Knowledge, what you find out by trial and error, or even by accident, this is the most critical thing.”

From another quarter came this opinion: “Detailed information on tests is a clear transfer of technology. It’s not a matter of security, it’s business.”

Ironically, the Europeans have run into a stone wall of their own, after granting the level playing field that U.S. industry agitated for, in terms of access by foreign companies to Galileo contracts. A European satellite builder visited a U.S. company, on U.S. soil, prepared to solicit a bid. But the U.S. company’s compliance officer — charged with keeping all operations in line with government rules and regulations — repeatedly stood up in the meetings and told colleagues, “Stop talking about how you are doing it and just talk about what it does.”

Unable to obtain sufficient technical context to prepare a request for proposal, the European company walked away, thinking “They don’t want our business.”

Opportunity lost.

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