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The Highlighted Route

It is in our nature as humans to plan. Some of us do it formally, writing down step by step instructions with a well-defined goal in mind. Others plan at a smaller scale, often thinking about step 2 after step 1 is underway. If you are out doing errands, advanced planning can save time with a more efficient route. If you are doing a project, planning can help avoid painting yourself into a corner (literally). When it comes to travel, planning might include packing things you will need or putting a hold on the mail, but it most definitely will involve some sort of pre-determined route. Airline pilots do this sort of route planning routinely to conserve fuel, avoid bad weather, and arrive at their destination on time. They submit a formal flight plan to document their intentions.

Pilots have their own lingo, helping to ensure clear radio communications. A typical flight will likely involve VFR, IFR and VOR and most certainly will be highly dependent on ATC. One acronym to be avoided at all costs is CFIT (controlled flight into terrain), which is just as bad as it sounds. If you know your precise location and altitude, CFIT is unlikely, even if IFR conditions are making it impossible to see anything out the window. This is where GPS comes in.

Beginning with the DoD NAVSTAR satellite-based system in 1993, GPS developed into a sophisticated positioning system that is highly accurate, easily accessed and substantially free of charge. It is operated by the Air Force for the US Government to meet the needs of military, civil, commercial, and scientific users. Coarse position codes are open to everyone, while the more accurate ones are restricted to the US Armed Forces and Federal Agencies. That GPS in your car can get you to within about 10 feet of your destination and if you can’t recognize it by then there’s not much more technology can do for you. As for the military version, let’s just say it is much more accurate and leave it at that.

In a peculiar bit of irony, the U.S. Military occasionally jams its own GPS signals in order to research ways to keep them from being jammed. Imagine piloting a modern jetliner with a hundred or more people on board when a warning suddenly pops up in the cockpit – “GPS Position Lost.” Although pilots have altimeters and VOR beacons for navigation, GPS made the entire point-to-point flying experience much more efficient. Most planes carry transponders which use the GPS for broadcasting altitude, heading and speed to controllers on the ground. While GPS works flawlessly 99.9% of the time, it’s a challenge to stay ready to respond to that other 0.1%.

Perhaps even more concerning is the case where GPS doesn’t just go away but starts returning erroneous data. GPS signals are so faint by the time they reach us that it is relatively easy to disrupt them, and illegal jamming devices are widely available on the black market. A delivery driver who doesn’t want his boss to know where he is can easily avoid being tracked. Intermittent GPS could be due to natural factors, jamming, or a government test – there is often no way to know.

It's hard to miss the similarities between GPS's highlighted route, and the paths we lay out for other parts of our lives. We like to believe that we know where we are relative to our goal at any given moment. Some of us believe there is a Master Plan for our life that will guide us to fulfilling a divine purpose. Some are intimidated by the unknown and take comfort in staying on a highlighted route, at times provided by others, with frequent detailed guidance and no surprises. Weak signals, jamming, and system failure are an inevitable part of life.

I realize in retrospect that my parents had planned a route for me when I was in High School. I weathered a few detours and course corrections along the way, but I did ultimately arrive at my destination. In some of those moments of “position lost”, I felt a potent mix of fear and infinite possibility. From time to time, friends and family stepped in and reminded me to return to the highlighted route.

And unlike a few of my less fortunate peers, I managed to avoid CFIT.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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