Posts Tagged ‘navigation’

Big Arrows And Beacons; Navigating Across The United States By Plane In The Pre-GPS Era

It’s the mid-1920’s and you’re in a plane trying to navigate your way across the vastness of the United States. GPS hasn’t been invented yet. VHF Omni Directional Radio Range, shortened to VOR, hasn’t been invented yet. LFR, or Low Frequency Radio Range, hasn’t been invented yet. How do you hope to stay on course?

As a pilot you’d have a compass, an altimeter and maybe a map of the railway system to help you navigate and this is just what pilots did from 1918 when the U.S. Postal Service introduced the U.S. Air Mail system. But you needed one critical thing to help you navigate, one thing that wasn’t available 24 hours a day. You needed daylight.

In 1921, an experimental night flight was successfully completed using the clever solution of following bonfires along the length of the route between Chicago and North Platte in Nebraska. The bonfires were lit and tended by Postal Service employees and the occasional helpful farmer.


Having proved that a regular, day and night, postal service was possible, starting in 1923 a system of beacons were built across the United States. Each beacon was a 51 foot tall tower, one every 10 miles, with a massive rotating lamp on top that could be seen up to 40 miles away. Additional lights of differing colours pointed the two directions of the route and another light flashed out the beacon’s identifier, in Morse code.


All of which was essential during the hours of darkness, but to help during daylight hours, each beacon was built on top of, or alongside, a massive concrete arrow, 70 feet in length, painted bright yellow, that pointed out the direction to the next beacon.

In their heyday, almost 1,500 beacons were built between 1923 and 1933. This navigation system continued despite the invention of Low Frequency Radio Range navigation in 1929. The last beacon was supposed to be shut down as late as 1973 but some are still in use in Western Montana.

While the beacon towers themselves are mostly long gone, many of the concrete arrows still remain and can be seen clearly from the satellite imagery that we now expect to accompany today’s GPS driven digital maps. The arrows may lack their trademark yellow paint as age and weathering take their toll and in a lot of cases the next beacon that they pointed to has vanished under a new development.


There’s an oddly pleasing sense of continuity that a navigation aid from the pre-GPS era is still visible in the maps we now take for granted.

Air beacon courtesy of the United States Federal Aviation Administration, map imagery courtesy of Google Maps.
Written and posted from Harris+Hoole, King Street, Twickenham (51.44619, -0.32866)

Introducing The Next Generation Of Portable Navigation Systems

Today’s digital maps, both on the web, on our mobile phones and in our cars are almost ubiquitous. But they’re not without their problems. They need recharging, updating and most need some form of network connectivity and that’s even before you look at the potential privacy aspects of who’s watching your position. But now there’s the next generation of portable navigation system.

This unprecedented technological revolution works without cables, without electronics, without a network connection and is both compact and portable. Integrated into a flexible cellulose based pad, it expands from the size of your pocket to as much as 48″ via the patented FUF technology (folding and unfolding).

Panning, zooming and rotation can be performed without image degradation; it’s fast, working smoothly within picoseconds. It also respects a user’s privacy, it’s impossible to hack and there’s no need for any antivirus or firewall.

It’s unbreakable, private and portable and goes by the name of MAP. Trust me, you’ll all be using one sooner or later.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

A Bipolar Attitude To Aerial And Satellite Imagery Plus Maps Fear, Uncertainty And Doubt

Maps and map imagery seem to be back in the news. Google’s recent map update and immense speculation about Apple’s “will they, won’t they” replacement for the current Google Maps app on iOS seems to be spilling over from the usual tech media into mainstream news.

Firstly, the UK’s Daily Telegraph, a “quality broadsheet” seems to have just discovered that today’s digital maps also have satellite imagery. It’s not entirely clear how this is news, let alone current news. Navteq has had satellite imagery as part of its’ maps since the mid 1980’s and Google has also included satellite imagery in Google Maps since the mid 2000’s. But linked to Apple’s recent acquisition of 3D imagery specialists C3, we’re told to anticipate a “private fleet of aeroplanes equipped with military standard cameras to produce 3D maps so accurate they could film people in their homes through skylights“. The middle market tabloid Daily Mail has also picked up on this story, running with the headline “Spies in the sky that no one will regulate“.

Yet only in January of this year, the Daily Mail published a series of extremely detailed aerial images under the headline “A nosey parker’s dream; Stunning aerial photographs show what’s going on in the world’s back gardens“. Apart from the slightly sensationalistic “nosey parker” reference, this six month old article seems to positively luxuriate in the high altitude photography. As Google’s Ed Parsons pithily points out, this is another case of “editorial integrity by the Daily Mail“.

Meanwhile, digital mapping provider TomTom, who acquired Tele Atlas in 2008 has produced what’s often described as a FUD piece (fear, uncertainty and doubt) on digital map data produced by OpenStreepMap. The article starts off well

“The concept of open source mapping is a very exciting one. As various technologies become more accessible, volunteer mappers can collect information and collaborate to produce shared maps. They’re cheap to make, licensing is often free or very low-cost, and users benefit from the knowledge of a large community of updaters.”

So far, so good. OSM has been gaining a lot of traction and attention over recent months as Nestoria, Apple (for iPhoto on the iPad), Wikipedia and Foursquare all adopted OSM maps to power their spatial visualisations. But not, it’s worth noting, to power turn-by-turn navigation applications. But according to TomTom, all is not well with this.

Despite the positives, recent studies have highlighted some major drawbacks of open source mapping, specifically with regard to safety, accuracy and reliability. In one particular instance, a leading open source map was compared against a professional TomTom map, and shown to have a third less residential road coverage and 16% less basic map attributes such as street names. Worse still, it blended pedestrian and car map geometry, and included ‘a high number of fields and forest trails’ classified as roads.

Interestingly, this view from TomTom clashes somewhat with a 2011 study comparing TomTom and OpenStreetMap in Germany which concluded that

“With a relative completeness comparison between the OSM database and TomTom’s commercial dataset, we proved that OSM provides 27% more data within Germany with regard to the total street network and route information for pedestrians.”

So why highlight the difference between OSM and TomTom data now? As TechDirt notes in its’ commentary on this topic

“The fact that TomTom has chosen to highlight this current deficiency in OpenStreetMap shows two things. First, that it is watching the open source alternative very closely, and secondly, that it is sufficiently worried by what it sees to start sowing some FUD in people’s minds. But as history has shown with both open source server software and open source encyclopaedias, once vendors of proprietary systems adopt such a tactic against up-and-coming free rivals, it’s a clear sign that it’s already too late to do anything about it, and that their days of undisputed dominance are numbered.”

Whether that’s a fair and accurate summary of this remains to be seen, but what this does prove it that just as I’ve been saying for the last two years that there is no one single authoriative source of Place data and there probably never will, so there is no one single authoriative map and likewise, there probably never will.

Without meaning to trivialise the adoption of OSM by Wikipedia, Foursquare et al, these maps are what might be termed map wallpaper; great for showing geographical and geospatial context for information. The high level of accuracy and internal data attributes needed to produce a turn-by-turn navigation system simply isn’t needed here. Which makes TomTom’s evaluation of OSM all the more puzzling.

Written and posted from the Click 6.0 Conference, Grand Millennium Hotel, Dubai (25.1010, 55.1777)

A First Step Towards Indoor Navigation. Literally

The problems started the moment GPS became a commodity and made the transition from the car to the mobile device. Nowadays, GPS can be found in a vast range of smartphones and navigation is possible without being confined to your car. Of course, it’s not always a great experience. GPS works best when there’s a direct line of sight to the satellites whizzing around over your head and there are times when you just can’t get a GPS lock. A-GPS was devised to help with such situations, allowing your location enabled to device to take advantage of a variety of other sensors, such as cell tower and wifi triangulation technologies.

But even then, GPS just doesn’t work indoors most of the time and indoor location and routing has become something of the Holy Grail for navigation technology vendors. Granted there have been lots of technologies developed which use non A-GPS technologies such as RFID and other near field sensors. But so far these all require a not insignificant investment to install and require specialist devices to take advantage of; none of which are as ubiquitous as the combination of smart phone and GPS.

Maybe we’re looking too deeply at this challenge. Take a category of location that lots of people go to, such as shopping malls, where GPS usually isn’t available, and map each mall to a high degree of accuracy, both in terms of the layout of the mall and in terms of the stores and concessions in that mall. Add in key features, such as multiple levels, staircases, escalators and lifts and you can build a spatial map of the mall which doesn’t need sensors. Simply tell your phone where you are and where you want to go and you can provide simplistic directions, without the need for GPS.

FastMall - Mall Overview

It’s obvious when you stop to think about it.

Whilst it’s not the voice guided, constantly updated, turn by turn navigation that we’re used to in conventional satnav, as a technology it’s simple to implement and FastMall, an iPhone app, has done just that.

So how does it work? Like most location based apps, FastMall taps into your iPhone’s onboard GPS allowing you to search for malls near to you (as a side note, this location based search isn’t geofenced at all, searching for malls around me in Berlin returns a huge list of European malls). Select the mall you’re either at or are going to and you download the mall’s map and data to your device. At this stage your need for GPS or even for a cellular signal is over. The locations of each store in the mall (even including toilets, staircases and escalators) are now on the phone. Navigating to the store you need is elegantly simplistic; simply tell the app where you want to go and tell the app where you are and you get a (literally) step by step guide to reach your destination.

FastMall - Navigation Setup

Let’s take an example of a mall I know reasonably well; the Westfield Valley Fair mall in Santa Clara, California. I’ve parked my car in the car park next to Macy’s and I want to get to the Apple Store. Assuming I’ve downloaded the mall map data (and this is in the US so there’s no guarantee I can do this in the car park as this is AT&T territory) I simply search for the Apple Store as my destination and then search for Macy’s as my starting point and I’m presented with precise walking directions on how to get there.

  1. Exit Macy’s
  2. Walk until you see Nine West and go straight
  3. Walk until you see Marc Ecko Cut & Sew and turn slight left
  4. Walk until you see Jessica Mcclintock and go straight
  5. Walk until you see MAC Cosmetics and go straight
  6. Walk straight until you see your destination on the right
  7. Enjoy. You have reached Apple Store

FastMall - You Have Reached Your Destination

I’ll forgive the app’s designers the slightly stilted phrasing in the directions but overall the experience is simple and seamless. It doesn’t take a vast leap of the imagination to see this sort of hybrid A-GPS and spatial map technique extended to other types of location, such as railway stations, conference centres and other pedestrian areas.

Now yes, I know this is iPhone only, yes I know this needs a high end smartphone and yes, this would really benefit from being integrated into an overall maps and navigation experience. But it’s a significant step towards real world, usable indoor navigation. Sometimes the simple approach outpaces the technological sensor driven approach we’ve become used to. Expect to see this sort of technology coming your phone in the not too distant future.

Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office, Invalidenstrasse, Berlin (52.53105, 13.38521)

Getting You There; The Battle Between PND, Mobile And Car

Attempts to predict the growth, success and uptake of technology are rife. Accurate predictions, less so. “There’s no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home“, said Ken Olsen, then founder and CEO of DEC in 1977. “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers” is apocryphally attributed to Thomas Watson of IBM in 1943.

It’s easy to say “well … duh” with the benefit of hindsight in 2010 but consider this. The first generation of in-car GPS units appeared in 1996. If anyone had told you that 14 years later you’d be running something infinitely more sophisticated and customisable, more powerful than one of Olsen’s DEC VAX computers that I started out on, on a device that you stuck in your pocket and which, by the way connected to a global network of computers and was also a telephone, you’d probably not have believed them or suggested that at a minimum they cut their coffee intake back.

Another reason not to trust everything computers tell you

Fast forward back to 2010; the big two mapping data providers, Teleatlas and Navteq, have both been acquired, Garmin, once synonymous with GPS is looking increasingly less and less relevant and both Google and Nokia are offering full turn by turn navigation on mobile devices, for free.

So how will this play out? What will dominate? PNDs, telematics dashboard “info-tainment” systems or mobile phones? It’s probably going to be all three but not in their current form thanks to the headlong convergence of computer, phone, camera, internet terminal and PND.

In 1996 the first GPS navigation systems were the preserve of the high end, executive car marques; both prestigious and viewed as a luxury commodity they were the precursor of today’s info-tainment consoles. Skip to 2004 and TomTom’s GO was one of the first of the now ubiquitous PNDs at commodity prices. Six years later and GPS enabled mobile phones are capable of running the same, turn by turn navigation systems but for free and they come preloaded with the handset. Sensing that most consumers are unlikely or unwilling to pay for a dedicated PND when they can have a free navigation system on their mobile the market is reacting and we’re seeing the first interfaces between smartphone and info-tainment consoles such as that from Harman and Nokia.

Get Your Free Sat Nav Here

Surely this means that we’ve come full circle and moving back to in-car based systems? I doubt it. The mobile offering has all the advantages; multi modal routing, pedestrian routing, your music collection, a camera, a phone, an internet console with email and social media apps yet none of the disadvantages; additional subscription cost, another gadget to carry, only works in the car.

The mobile phone and the in-car console are here to stay; the PND is destined for extinction. But like Messrs. Olsen and Watson, I could be wrong.

Written for and originally published in the June edition of Coordinates magazine.

Photo Credits: Unhindered by Talent and Paul Robinson on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Ramada Hotel Berlin Mitte in Berlin (52.529858, 13.383858)