Wide Awake Bridging the Gap

March 30, 2010  - By
Image: GPS World

I gave this talk at the Munich Satellite Navigation Summit, in a concluding session titled “Bridging the Gap: A Journalistic View on Progress and Problems of GNSS.”

Before telling you what I came here to say today, I should really attempt to answer the question posed by our moderator:Is the world ready for new GNSS applications and services?

If by that we mean system modernization and newly envisioned applications, the  cutting edge, I say: No. What the world has a crying need for are older GNSS applications and services, ones that we in this room may take for granted, perhaps even view as somewhat passé.  But the vast majority of the world knows nothing of them, and has yet to experience their benefits.

Giving a journalist’s perspective could be difficult because journalists aren’t supposed to have perspective. Our task is to report the news, just the facts.

In satellite navigation, governed by physics and radio frequency, one might expect facts to prevail.

Not always.

Of course in the technical articles at the core of the magazine, facts rule.

But in the news that I write, The System, in effect GNSS Quo Vadis — in the news, facts may be in short supply.

This news is filled with projections, timelines, trends, expectations, a triumph or two, some disappointments, budgets, negotiations, market readiness. Facts come in a distant second.

Because I cover new developments in constellations on orbit, in ground control and monitoring, in plans and policies and rivalries. All these are created by people.

By you, in fact. You and your colleagues.  The global navigation community — living and working within the global community.

These maps, courtesy of Todd Walter and his colleagues at Stanford, show aircraft landing capability and its development over time. You saw them twice yesterday, maybe three times, if you read the magazine in your bag.

But I use them here to illustrate availability and benefits of high-precision PNT of all kinds.

Global positioning is available globally, everywhere. Pull out a receiver in the middle of the Sahara, you’ll get a position. What good does that do you, you and your nomad band, if you live in the Sahara?  Not much good, if you don’t have a map, or a frame of reference of some kind.

If you are a small industry, a local government, a market economy, any manifestation of a society, you need a reference network to get an advantage from your position, no matter how precise.

And in this white expanse, by and large, no such networks exist. The people living in these white areas are beyond the pale, outside the realm of the marvelous benefits of global positioning.

Patricia Doherty writes in this magazine, “The leading problems that continue to cripple much of Africa include hunger, extreme poverty, erosion of natural resources, and natural disasters. GNSS can help address these problems.  GNSS applications can increase food security, manage natural resources, provide efficient emergency location services, improve surveying and mapping, and provide greater precision and safety in land, water, and air navigation.”

This holds true not just for Africa, but across the Southern Hemisphere and swathes of the northern: often known as the Second and Third Worlds – coincidentally, all the white space on this map.

Why should we, the GNSS community living happily in our First World, the color on the map, care about this? I put it to you that it is in our own best self-interest to do so.

We’re very busy using GNSS to solve our problems of dense air traffic, and road congestion, hazardous material transport, extracting more from agriculture, finding our way in urban canyons, finding our friends, finding coffee, rescuing people.

Yes, we have problems.  They may be a higher quality of problem than the rest of the world experiences.

The rest of the world has poverty, hunger, disease, disaster.  When I hear “Bridging the Gap,” the title of our session – this is the gap that jumps immediately to mind.

From these problems global conflict arises: terrorism and persistent war in troubling regions.  Violent ideologies are born and nurtured in impoverished circumstances. Our prosperous societies will not know lasting peace until all the world shares some kind of equity in terms of quality of life. There will always be differences. But as long as abject poverty and hunger and unaided disaster exist, as long as a wide, deep gap persists, there will never be peace, lasting peace, or tranquility.

GNSS can help solve these problems.  But it’s moving awfully slow. These charts don’t have dates, but they imply that by 2018 or 2025 or perhaps later, an aircraft can land with precision in central Africa. The charts don’t offer anything for the people living there at that time.

How can we ensure that the spread of this marvelous capability applies not only to pilots and passengers, but to all people?

One way, one suggestion, is to inform our governments and legislators, to insist that every foreign aid program, every school-building project, every hospital or roadbuilding project, shipment of foodstuffs and medical aid, must be accompanied by the hardware for a reference frame, for a regional or portable RTK network, and by the training to install it and maintain it.

We know that GNSS leverages other technologies. It is a multiplier.

These regions lack infrastructure. GNSS can provide the infra inside that infrastructure.  A road network, regional development plan, transportation plan to foster local markets and economic development, exploration and extraction of natural resources — these things go better with GNSS.

For more background on what I’ve discussed, see www.gpsworld.com/Africa, www.gpsworld.com/afref, and www.gpsworld.com/chile.

Put the power of GNSS where it can do the most good – for everyone.  Let’s remember — and honor — Ivan Getting, the visionary who launched the very first GNSS. His vision: “lighthouses in the sky, for the benefit of all mankind.”

I’m a journalist. That’s my perspective.
Thank you.


Sleep was what I wanted, you know what I got.  Wide awake, staying up late, wishing I was not.

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