Out in Front: Welling Up

July 1, 2010  - By

September 1992.

One of the first industrial uses of GPS came in survey and seismic exploration for offshore oil, as evidenced by the cover story of this magazine’s September 1992 issue. A salient passage from that 18-year-old “Quality Control For Differential GPS in Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration” article:

“Users are in danger of being mesmerized by the apparent simplicty of the technology and abandoning quality-control principles . . . . The key to routine operations is rigorous real-time quality control.” Eerily, among the companies acknowledged for support of that article was BP Exploration.

Oil companies early-adopted GPS and private satellite differential correction services, and remain enthusiastic users today, for monitoring of and navigation around deep-sea rigs. The March 2010 cover story shows how this field continues to forge ahead, now as early adopters of multi-GNSS technology.

Positioning, navigation, and timing had nothing to do with the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but some important lessons float there for our learning. They concern engineering principles — principally in not forsaking them.

The full Deepwater Horizon story has yet to emerge, but it seems abundantly clear that corner-cutting and downright elimination of basic practices led to the disaster. When a natural aberration occurred, it blew right through several weakened backup systems and safety guards, ones that were withdrawn or restricted only days earlier, to shave costs and time.

Beancounting and other modern business practices have undermined vital enginering principles — rigorous mathematical analysis, based firmly in the laws of physics, situational and historical experience, and what may seem to be overcautious safety margins — not just in the Gulf, but everywhere we look, including our own GNSS backyard. Control of technical programs in both private and public sectors now rests in the hands of non-technical people who owe highest allegiance to the almighty dollar. CPAs trump engineering Ph.D.s. If a disaster hasn’t happened (yet), there’s no need to guard against it, they believe.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Loran-C?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He guided ships and airplanes,
But it seems the budget’s slashing-prone.
You know, I just looked around, and he’s gone.

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About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.