Google Maps for the sea: Cruise ship testing new satellite system ABC Online Full coverage
Many of us would struggle to cope without the navigation systems in our cars or on our mobile phones — from finding our way around a new area, to tracking a meal delivery — it has become a valuable tool for everyday life.
- The technology could improve positioning data accuracy from within 10m to 10cm
- It could be used in mining, construction, aviation, agriculture and maritime industries
- Widespread rollout could add 2 per cent to the GDP
- All Australians could eventually use the technology
But did you know it is not as accurate as you might think?
Federal government agency Geoscience Australia is trialling a new satellite system which could significantly improve positioning data across the country.
“Stand alone GPS today has an accuracy of five to 10 metres,” researcher John Dawson said.
“The technology that we’re testing will bring the performance of positioning down to around 10 centimetres.”
What do cruise ships have to do with it?
Reducing the margin of error might not make a major difference to people using maps to drive from A to B, but it could deliver huge benefits to industries like the maritime sector.
One of the trial participants is the Ovation of the Seas, a massive cruise ship which has been fitted with the new technology for its visits to the busy Sydney Harbour.
“It’s the largest ship that we get into the harbour, it’s 348m in length and I think it’s about 10 storeys high, it won’t fit under the Harbour Bridge,” harbour master Philip Holliday said.
“And so when we’re trying to bring that into the congested area of Circular Quay, we’ve got to be pretty accurate and careful about what we’re doing.
“We don’t have a lot of room to get things wrong.”
Maritime pilots help to guide hundreds of cruise ships into the harbour every year with the help of GPS, but marine geophysicist Nicole Bergersen said the existing technology was limiting.
“At the moment the pilot relies partly on the computer screen for situational awareness, but also on looking out the windscreen because the GPS we have right now just isn’t of the quality we need,” she said.
“We have to place a great envelope or corridor of prohibition around any ship into which any other harbour user cannot pass. What we’re enabling here is the capability to look at having one ship incoming whilst another ship is outgoing.”
So, how does it work?
The technology is called a Satellite Based Augmentation System.
It uses data from existing global satellites, along with infrastructure on the ground, to improve its accuracy.
“We’re taking data from that network in real time, computing some corrections which we’re then broadcasting via a communications satellite to the whole of Australia,” Dr Dawson said.
“The signals that we will ultimately transmit, if this signal moves from a test bed into something more operational, will be able to be utilised by all Australians.
“So anyone who relies on GPS positioning will benefit.”
What other benefits could it have?
Other industries taking part in the trial include mining, construction, aviation and agriculture.
“One of the really interesting applications is tracking the movement of cows, with the aim of ultimately implementing virtual fencing — to move the cows around without the need for fences,” Dr Dawson said.
“We’re also working on a number of automated and intelligent vehicle projects, and in fact this technology is already being tested in an automated car in Melbourne.
“So the applications are boundless.”
He said the widespread rollout of the system could add billions of dollars to the Australian economy.
“The initial economic analysis indicates that if it was implemented across the economy, it might make as much difference as 2 per cent to GDP across those sectors.”
What happens after the trial?
The testing period runs until January 2019, after which the Federal Government will make a decision on its future.
“There’s no doubt, at some point soon we will be adopting this kind of technology,” Assistant Science Minister Zed Seselja said.
“Now we need to test it, make sure it works, see what the implications are, see how it might need to be refined, and then obviously look at the costs.”
The Minister conceded Australia had fallen behind other countries in developing navigation technology, but said it was not too late.
“What we’re testing here is absolutely cutting edge, it’s technology that is not used widely anywhere else and so if we get this right, we would have leap-frogged those who may have been a little bit ahead of us in the past.”