Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Navigation and new technology

Couple of navigation and technology news items have caught my eye recently.

First up there's the story that Trinity House, the organisation responsible for the lighthouses here in the UK are thinking of switching off Beachy Head and up to 5 others (see chart above).

The argument is that nowadays there is GPS and so there is less need for a lighthouse. They have issued a request for comments on the Aids to Navigation Review, which can be found here, though alas responses were due last week.

In the PDF it goes into more detail, in particular that it makes a number of assumptions including the following:
  • Generally, the lights system can be considered a complementary but secondary system to GNSS
  • Generally, having one light in view is acceptable
I must admit to be unconvinced. Yes we do have GPS, and it is wonderful and so cheap that most boats have multiple receivers and yes there will be iPad like toys in the future (and imagine the Navionics app on that - fantastic!).

But often in leisure yachts these are kept below deck where they can be kept dry and so not as accessible. This is different from the situation in most commercial vessels these are more likely to be to hand as they steer from the comfort of a heated bridge.

And having just the one light doesn't give a fix, it just gives a direction. For good situation awareness it would be better to have at least two lights in view at all times, particularly in busy shipping lanes like the English Channel.

But it could be worse - on the drawing boards of the US military are robot killer boats, roaming the seas with no oversight what-so-ever, relying totally on radar. Well alas that has shown to be insufficient as was shown by the story when the Ouzo was lost after an encounter with Pride of Bilbao. Small boats reflect radar poorly and are often hidden by wave clutter.

I'm afraid I'm really not convinced that they'd keep a good lookout for small boats in their quest for who ever the Pentagon is labelling this week as the "bad-guys". And I'm not at all sure who you (or more realistically your insurance company) would sue if one ran you down.

Don't get me wrong, I like technology and am drooling for an iPad already.

But the ethics of use of robot war craft are woefully undeveloped and I for one do not want to share the seas with 'bot boats that rely on an inadequate radar system.

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