The Rapid Evolution of Navigation

Man has navigated by the stars, since he took a pen to paper and recorded history. While we still generally look to the heavens for directional guidance, the methods and standards have evolved at a breakneck pace in the past few hundred years. The technology that gave birth to the sextant and astrolabe exploded into radio communication and finally to launching man-made stars into space. The devices to navigate by them and the proliferation into all forms of transportation is equally remarkable. Maps are still widely used, but a combination of satellite and computer technology has enabled map-making to move beyond two dimensional lines on paper to virtual photographs of topography.

Longitude and latitude are still the generally accepted positioning standard for expressing a particular location. The nomenclature is relative to the equator which divides the earth into a Northern and a Southern hemisphere, and the Greenwich or Prime Meridian which divides the earth East and West. So, 41° 58' 41" N and 87° 54' 22" W, which as it happens, is Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, is 41 degrees, 58 minutes and 41 seconds north of the Equator and 87 degrees 54 minutes and 22 seconds west of the Prime Meridian.

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The “where” is easy to understand in comparison to the “how.” Until very recently, modern military navigation has been primarily facilitated by Long Range Navigation or LORAN, a terrestrial radio system utilizing numerous transmitters to track receivers on seagoing vessels. The Russian-American and Canadian LORAN chains remain in use, though the technology seems to be largely on the way out.

GPS has most definitely asserted itself as the state of the art. The placement of global positioning satellites (GPS) into space enables us to look back at the earth in such a way as to precisely locate a variety of vessels from a merchant ship to the family van down to longitude and latitude. Although GPS has also taken its place on airplanes, radios and receivers still play a large part in navigating inner space. Commercial airliners use radio signals and a varied combination of onboard devices such as IRS (Inertial Reference System) and INS (Inertial Navigation System), which rely on first being told where they are starting from in order to determine where they are en route.

However, while GPS is a great method to navigate, find your way from one place to a pre-determined destination, it enables monitoring and control of transportation systems such as rail and trucking. GPS data transmitted computer networks facilitate the safe and effective operations of truck fleets and railroads.

The reliance on satellite and computer technology for navigation and navigational information management, while effective, has introduced an ominous undertone of “what if.” The common nature of communications and computer failures will likely leave radio antenna-based navigational systems in a back-up position for years to come. The human element in navigation should be equally on notice. In the face of technology failure, skills like map reading and terrestrial navigation come in very handy.

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