“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…” – John Masefield
However tall modern ships are today, the appeal of steering by the stars is making a comeback. This resurgence isn’t driven by the romantic “love of the sea and history” but by the real need to back up late 20th century technology with the ancient science of celestial navigation.
In an age of digital technology, global navigation satellite systems (GNSS – called GPS in the United States) and positioning systems able to pinpoint the location of a vessel, aircraft or vehicle to within centimeters, the world may seem an easily navigable place. But what happens when all that high technology is laid low by natural or unnatural causes? How do they respond when faced with navigation in a GNSS-denied environment?
We’ve all experienced it – driving in the city with our trusty GPS guiding us along, and then we go through a tunnel or are in the middle of an urban canyon of skyscrapers and the dreaded “Signal Unavailable” alert appears and you hear the ever-so-polite voice say, “Recalculating”. Satellite signals are vulnerable, and in a world where system hacking has become almost routine news, and cyber-warfare moves from sci-fi into the real world as an actual threat, the idea that GPS may not be reliable is the stuff of nightmares for regular folks and even more so for the militaries of the world.
That’s why it wasn’t really a surprise when the U.S. Naval Academy announced celestial navigation was returning to its curriculum. Lt. Commander Ryan Rogers, the deputy chairman of the Academy’s Department of Seamanship and Navigation, quoted in the Capital Gazette, explained:
“We went away from celestial navigation because computers are great. The problem is there’s no backup.”
Is celestial navigation a pain in the tail? As someone who had to learn it and use it years ago, I can safely say “you bet”. But knowing it is a whole lot better than not knowing where a multimillion or multibillion vessel is because GNSS satellite signals aren’t available.
It’s a challenge we see at KVH on a regular basis. System integrators and prime contractors working with advanced robotics and unmanned technology come to us because they require navigation and control systems that work in conjunction with GNSS when it is available and valid, and also provide a backup solution when GNSS is unavailable – for any reason.
KVH’s Fiber Optic Gyro (FOG)-based inertial systems can also operate totally independent of GNSS in customers’ systems that operate in environments where satellite signals can’t be received, such as underground or underwater. Developers also come to KVH looking to enhance and support GNSS to provide added precision for both unmanned and manned systems operating on land, in the air, and on the sea.
The solutions we offer are FOG-based inertial systems such as inertial measurement units (IMUs) and inertial navigation systems (INS). These precision systems provide critical navigation and positioning data with and without GNSS, and overcome the satellite-based navigation system’s vulnerabilities, whatever the cause may be.
After all, whether you’re using unhackable 275-year old technology or ultra-precise, modern inertial tech, it’s always nice to know exactly where you are.