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Orientation in the digital age: The future of navigation

Traditional GPS navigation systems: are they becoming history?

Earth observation and measurement satellites have been operating for many years, during which time they have become the basis for satellite navigation systems, one of the twentieth century’s most important technical innovations. The US-developed Global Positioning System (GPS) pinpoints the location of a receiving device, making life easier not only for aviation and shipping but also for the consumer using a car sat-nav or smartphone.1

The system was developed by the US Department of Defense which launched its first satellite into orbit in the late Seventies. However, it was not until 1995 that GPS became fully functional. 24 satellites now circle the Earth on precisely defined orbits. Originally, the system was destined for military use only. In May 2000 however, the US government lifted restrictions which until then had degraded civilian signal accuracy, thus making GPS available to consumers worldwide.2

But how exactly does the satellite system work? Satellites orbiting at altitudes of over 20,000 kilometres continually transmit signals earthwards to corresponding GPS devices, car sat-navs or smartphones, for example. These navigation devices calculate how long a signal takes and hence the distance to the satellite in question. One satellite signal is insufficient for accurate positioning, however. Four signals are required to pinpoint a receiving device. Comparing constantly changing coordinates with a digital map on one’s navigation device makes it possible to calculate a desired route from A to B.3

Nowadays, GPS navigation systems are standard equipment on all types of vehicles and one of the main reasons why hauliers, coach companies and public transport can operate smoothly. However, development of global satellite systems still continues. The Russian ministry of defence has been using the Glonass satellite system as an alternative to the original US system for several years, while many mobile devices can already receive signals from Beidou, which was developed by China.4

Europe has also been putting the finishing touches to its own GPS navigation system, Galileo, for some time now. Only recently, on 27 July 2018, a rocket launched four more satellites into space, and 26 Galileo satellites now orbit the Earth.5 According to the system’s operators mobile phone companies are now equipping their products with corresponding receivers.

Does this mean the era of GPS is coming to an end? That is highly unlikely. On the contrary, simultaneous extraction of information from several satellite systems potentially provides even more accurate coordinates, and will kickstart further progress in navigation systems.

Mapping – new forms of digital orientation

The technical demands on navigation systems are increasing, as are the uses to which they are being put. Whereas a few years ago the aim was merely to navigate from A to B, with transport systems becoming increasingly digitalised and globalised, the focus is now more and more on networking.

Mapping in a global network: What3Words

Founded in 2013, the London-based startup what3words6 has successfully marketed a completely new geo-referencing concept. what3words divides the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares, each of which is assigned a unique three-word address. Thus the tip of the Eiffel Tower is marked as “dreams.defining.mouth“, while the top of the Brandenburg Gate is called “that.lands.winning“. The basic idea is to be able to unambiguously exchange place coordinates all over the world. what3words location addresses are available in over 20 languages, which allows users in many countries to exchange coordinates in their mother tongue and find their way around foreign places without any knowledge of a foreign language. As well as making it easier to communicate attractions and known addresses, this geo-coding system also helps where street and building names are not marked. On 1 August 2018, for example, Mongolia’s postal system introduced what3words to make it easier to find addressees in what is a sparsely populated region.7

Mobile community: Waze

With Waze8, a navigation system for smartphones, the focus is also on networking. With this system, real-time analysis and social media involvement transforms road users into a digital community. As well as automatically transmitting their coordinates and trip speed to the app, road users can manually add their own information, for example unexpected traffic delays or the price of petrol at a filling station. This results in a real-time, interactive map that even lets users link with friends, when they are travelling to a common destination, for example.

Efficient data analysis: Here

Technical progress in navigation systems is increasingly combining traffic information and A to B navigation data. The ability to determine an individual vehicle’s position also makes it possible to record and analyse overall traffic situations. At the Automobil Forum in Munich in 2017 Here, the makers of a mapping system under the control of the carmakers Audi, BMW und Daimler since 20159, announced the development of a comprehensive “digital real-time database“10 within the next three years. The concept is based on real-time data mining. Vehicles equipped with the system transmit a constant stream of road trip data to the cloud, where it is collected, analysed and relayed back to individual vehicles. As well as warning of traffic jams and delays the system aims to show available parking spaces in real time. It has the potential to not only actively improve traffic flows but public transport as well.

Navigation systems on public transport networks

Innovative solutions such as navigation systems employing real-time data are revolutionising personal transport and making public transport and long-distance travel smoother and more efficient, a development that benefits transport companies, bus companies and their passengers.

Improving navigation: specially designed systems for buses

Whereas in the past improvements to navigation systems have focused on private transport, rising demand for public transport11 means the spotlight is now increasingly on telematics systems. In recent years more and more companies, including the market leaders TomTom and Snooper, have launched navigation systems designed for buses and HGVs, and are thus offering technology that also greatly benefits public transport. These systems take a vehicle’s dimensions, weight, load, and maximum speed12 into account and also include stops such as motorway services and parking areas in order to calculate the best possible route. The results make it considerably easier to work out routes, especially for coach travel operators and other long-distance connections.

Better vehicle fleet planning: fleet management systems

Specially designed navigation systems can also help to significantly streamline the vehicle fleet management activities of transport companies. Being able to precisely determine an individual vehicle’s position gives operators a basis for flexible and efficient vehicle fleet planning. Reliable information on the whereabouts of vehicles makes it possible to quickly detect unexpected delays and thus avoid any major effects on the timetable by being able to respond accordingly. Systems such as the Webfleet program from the market leader TomTom13 also feature dynamic two-way communications between the driver and management as well as a reporting system to help improve vehicle fleets.14

More efficient use of public transport: real-time, barrier-free navigation for passengers

As illustrated above, the use of modern navigation systems on public transport can also significantly benefit passengers. The latest navigation and mapping apps such as HERE Maps and Google Maps already feature public transport options. In early 2017 Google Maps added Flixbus coach timetables to its services.15

Tomorrows’s navigation systems promise to offer more than merely an information service.

If the systems operating on public transport vehicles connect with the relevant apps on passengers’ smartphones then real-time communications between the two will be possible. Thus, a project launched by the regional transport network Ruhr-LippeGmbH under the heading of ”Bus verbindet – Einfachmobil“ is currently trialling a system which allows passengers to request a stop and mobility assistance at stops where other connections also exist. In particular, this complies with lawmakers’ demands that public transport facilities be totally barrier-free by 2022.16

Beyond GPS: orientation indoors

Indoor navigation systems represent a further major step forward in this field. They let users find their way around enclosed spaces such as warehouses, exhibition halls, railway stations and airports and are thus one step ahead of satellite-dependent GPS systems. Their use can be of great advantage to passengers navigating their way on public transport networks. The relevant app can direct them to the correct platform, the right connection, the exit or an information desk on their travels.

Indoor navigation featuring beacon technology As regards indoor navigation, a number of different systems are currently being employed to determine a user’s position in enclosed spaces. A startup by the name of Inabe uses Beacon technology which functions on the basis of Bluetooth low-energy standards. So-called beacons are installed inside the buildings in question. Using a low-energy Bluetooth connection they transmit a constant stream of data which is picked up by end devices.17 This method of navigating indoors, which is handled by a corresponding app from Inabe, is useful not only at public transport hubs, but retail stores too. By anonymously analysing the movement profiles of app users Inabe provides the lucrative option of being able to draw conclusions regarding the purchasing habits and decision-making behaviour of potential customers.18

Indoor navigation by ultrasound

Telocate, a company from Freiburg, has decided on a much less widespread technical solution. Their system navigates by ultrasound, i.e. acoustic signals beyond the range of human hearing. These are transmitted to receivers previously installed in the corners of a building by a smartphone app which in turn calculates its position from the signal speed. The signal data is synchronised with the app’s building plan, and the resultant positioning is accurate to within 20 centimetres.19 With such a high level of precision, the system could conceivably be used in public buildings, railway stations and airports. It could also be employed in retail stores in order to reliably direct customers to a section or product of their choice.

Indoor navigation by augmented reality

Smartphone-assisted indoor navigation using augmented reality is a special experience for users. Using previously stored image recognition points the picture being recorded by the camera phone receives augmented information. This can include navigation tips or facts about nearby points of interest. This approach has advantages not only for private users, but for companies as well. For example, large warehouses can use this technology to install safety warnings or instructional videos in appropriate locations for their workers.

The role of navigation systems in the transport networks of the future

The fact is that the last word in navigation systems has by no means been spoken. On the contrary, along with the ongoing digital transformation of the market economy and transport systems their role is growing. Particularly where public transport is concerned it is now possible to conceive a completely new future.

Driverless vehicles: what must tomorrow’s navigation systems achieve?

As development of driverless vehicles progresses, navigation systems are becoming more and more important and playing a decisive role. With no more driver involvement, navigation systems dare not make any mistakes. A number of manufacturers are currently researching navigation solutions for fully automating the highways, which is by no means any longer a mere fantasy. Thus, TomTom has announced its intention to focus even more on developing HD maps for driverless vehicles. The company aims to trial its new technology in driverlessHGVs on the roads as early as 2018.20 The UK-based startup Wayve has taken an altogether different approach. It specialises in artificial intelligence without the use of complex 3D maps, whereby it teaches a driverless vehicle using a trial and error-based reward system, known as reinforcement learning, to become a reliable navigator.21

Smart Way navigation: networking tomorrow’s transport systems

Whether manufacturers of navigation systems are collaborating with carmakers, carmakers are in partnership with transport companies, or public transport operators are working with other transport services, their efforts all point in the same direction, namely that tomorrow’s transport systems will be networked. The goal is no longer to create a digital, efficient and eco-friendly highway system, but to combine every innovative approach into a maximum-efficiency transport network.

The fact is that navigation system development has long ceased to be focused on private vehicle users, or even on individual transport as a whole. Navigation is required wherever journeys take place and destinations must be reached. Providers of services such as delivery and shipping companies are a good example: since 2017 Here has been working on a solution that tracks not only delivery vehicle movements, but the individual position of items being transported as well.22

This foreshadows another key aspect: tomorrow’s navigation systems will not only network mobile service providers, but also and in particular will connect individual users with their digital environment. Thus, navigation systems remain what they have fundamentally always been, namely vital instruments for finding one’s way around in a fast-moving age.

1 cf.: Wolfschmidt, Gudrun (publisher) (2008): Navigare necesse est. Geschichte der Navigation. Norderstedt: Books on Demand GmbH, p. 133.
2 cf.: “Bitte Links abbiegen!“, [02. Sept. 2010]. Last checked: 27 July 2018
3 cf.: “Wenn sich das ‚Navi‘ mit den Satelliten unterhält“, Last checked: 27 July 2018
4 cf.: Link, Michael: “Das Navi weiß den Weg. 40 Jahre GPS Satelliten“, [22 Feb. 2018]. Last checked: 27 July 2018.
5 cf.: “Für Europa-Navi Galileo. Vier Satelliten im All ausgesetzt“, [27 July 2018]. Last checked: 27 July 2018.
6 cf.:
7 cf.: Kühl, Eike: “Die Welt in drei Worten“, [16 June 2016]. Last checked: 27 July 2018.
8 cf.: Last checked: 29 July 2018
9 cf.: “Kartendienst Here. Autobauer nehmen Chinesen mit an Bord.“, [27 Dec. 2016]. Last checked: 29 July 2018.
10 Volk, Frank: “Here: zur digitalen Echtzeit-Datenbank in drei Jahren“, [12 July 2017]. Last checked: 29 July 2018.
11 Messe Berlin press release [26 July 2018]. Last checked: 30 July 2018.
12 cf.: “TomTom Go Professional: Neue Navi-Serie für Professionelle Kraftfahrer“, or: “BUS&COACH: Professionelle Navigatoinsgeräte von Snooper für Busse und Reisebusse“, Last checked: 30 July 2018.
13 cf.: Last checked: 30 July 2018.
14 cf.: Mulatz, Reinhold: “Marktführer TomTom erneuert sein Programm Webfleet“, [02 May 2018]. Last checked: 30 July 2018.
15 cf.: Pakalski, Ingo: “Google Maps integriert Flixbus“, [08 Mar. 2017]. Last checked: 30 July 2018.
16 cf.: Meyer, Martina/Ontrup, Tim (2016): “Echtzeit-Information durch mobile Fahrzeug-Interaktion: die Vorteile“. Soest/Dortmund: Erich Schmidt Verlag.
17 cf.: “Beacons zur Indoor Navigation nutzen“, Last checked: 30 July 2018.
18 cf.: Elsaesser, Sabine: “Inabe macht das Begehen und Erkunden von komplexen Innenräumen zu einem grundlegend neuen Erlebnis“, [03 Sept. 2015]. Last checked: 30 July 2018.
19 cf.: Rähm, Jan: “Bessere Orientierung. Indoor-Navigationssystem orientiert sich per Ultraschall“,[03 Nov. 2016]. Last checked: 30 July 2018.[03.11.2016]. Zuletzt geprüft: 30.07.2018.
20 cf.: “TomTom: HD-Karten für Vorausschauendes Fahren“, [10 Apr. 2018]. Last checked: 30 July 2018.
21 cf.: Kohl, Magdalena: “Wayve trainiert autonome Autos“, [11 July 2018]. Last checked: 30 July 2018.
22 cf.: “Here Tracking: Damit keine Waren mehr verloren gehen“, [21 Dec. 2017]. Last checked: 30 July 2018.

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