GPS and navigation

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I have been annoyed recently by full-page ads in which RIM is advertising the navigational capabilities of their new BlackBerries. They suggest that people can throw away maps and compasses and wholeheartedly embrace the combination of GPS and electronic maps.

I know firsthand how useful GPS can be. As an altimeter or a way of locating yourself in a featureless landscape, it cannot be beaten. Likewise, it is very helpful for quickly figuring out where you are when you are out on the water in a canoe or kayak. All the same, I think there is a fundamental value in being able to read a map, locate yourself on it, and work out a course to where you want to be. It isn’t enough to take a course in these things and forget about it. As with any complex skill, practice is important.

Some common sense is also a necessity, no matter how you are navigating. If your GPS-based automobile navigation system tells you to drive along train tracks, you should be aware that machines are fallible, and highly stupid as well. They have no common sense by which to evaluate whether, for instance, a bridge has been washed out or whether a linear course between A and B includes a series of lethal cliffs. There is also the small matter that some dead batteries a splash of water or a dropped piece of gear could knock out both your map and compass equivalent, if you are relying on a GPS system.

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Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

10 thoughts on “GPS and navigation”

  1. BlackBerries are hardly designed for the wilderness. I bet they are aiming for the ‘I have never been to Chicago but now I have a business meeting there and need to find my hotel’ crowd.

    Even so, the points you raise make sense.

  2. I realize that people are unlikely to head out into the wilds with only a BlackBerry. Even so, it is valuable for people to know how to navigate.

  3. There seems to be a growing trend in the UK of people suspending their common sense when they get in a car and turn on GPS navigation units. There are people driving off cliffs and through flooded roads and taking detours that span half of England, apparently at the behest of their navigation units. Things got so bad in one place that authorities even had to put up “ignore your sat nav” signs. Now, a woman’s car got hit by a train, and for some reason, she’s blaming a GPS navigation unit. She says the device led her “right into the path of a speeding train”: she was driving to her boyfriend’s house, using the GPS for directions, when she came up to a metal gate with a red circle on it, marked with a “little sign saying, if the light is green, open the gates and drive through.” She doesn’t say whether or not the light was green, just that she opened the gate, drove through, got out to shut the gate and heard a train coming, then she realized she was standing on a train crossing. She got out of the way, but the train hit her car and carried it for half a mile. She says she “can’t completely blame” the GPS unit — but it’s not clear why the GPS is to blame at all. First, you’d imagine that one would be cognizant enough of their surroundings to realize when they were at a railroad crossing. Second, if it wasn’t obvious enough, isn’t the problem really inadequate signage or a lack of other safety equipment? Of course, it’s easier to put the blame on the GPS, since it can only answer back by saying, “Left turn in 400 yards,” rather than own up to your own fault.

  4. Good Lord, I can’t believe that you weren’t kidding about the train tracks… didn’t realize it until I clicked on the link…

  5. Edward,

    The most illuminating quotation is from the woman following the satnav directions:

    “”I put my complete trust in the sat nav and it led me right into the path of a speeding train.”

    Putting complete trust in technology is awfully foolish.

  6. GPS System might begin to fail in 2010, Government Accounting Office warns
    By Joseph L. Flatley on U.s.AirForce

    Get all of your geocache games in while you can, kids… if the Worst Case Scenario(R) goes down, the nation’s GPS system could begin to fail sometime next year. According to a Government Accounting Office report, the Global Positioning System has been so mismanaged that when aging equipment starts to fail, there may be no new satellites to take their place. “If the Air Force does not meet its schedule goals for development of GPS IIIA satellites,” the report states, “there will be an increased likelihood that… the overall GPS constellation will fall below the number of satellites required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to.”

  7. “Pathfinders” Take Shape For Galileo, Europe’s GPS

    oliderid sends along a BBC report on progress toward Europe’s home-grown GPS system. The Galileo concept will get an initial test via four “pathfinder” satellites that will be the first in the Galileo constellation. Galileo is intended to be complementary with the US GPS system — when all 30 Galileo birds are flying, a receiver with both GS and Galileo capability should enjoy 1-meter positional accuracy, vs. the several meters available through GPS alone, according to the article.

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