Microlocation: The Next Era of Navigation Technology

Humatics is pioneering the new technology of microlocation — ultra-precise localization in the built environment. We are currently solving a number of “hair on fire” problems in industry and robotics: the leading edge of microlocation as the inevitable next step in the centuries-long evolution of navigation. These technologies not only tell us where we are in space, but they shape how we imagine and act in the worlds we inhabit.
 John Harrison’s H4 clock (via Wikimedia Commons)
Back in the eighteenth century, Harrison’s chronometers enabled the precise measurement of longitude at sea, opening new eras of trade and exploration. But not all technological innovations are mechanical. The core navigational technology of the modern era is the map — a representation of the world, a miniature model that allows us to see with an imagined god’s eye.
Maps are cognitive and social technologies. Mapping the earth, or a country, or a city, is a means of controlling space, for political, economic, or other purposes. Put another way, maps are ways to incorporate and control an environment without actually having to be there — today we’d call it remote presence.
The International Maps of the World (IMW), an ultimate expression of this enlightenment philosophy, got going around the turn of the twentieth century and aspired to universal objectivity. The standard was soon expressed in a full set of regional maps, according to universal coordinate frames, standards, and borders (think of the paper maps you’d find folded inside National Geographic magazines).
A map at 1:2,000,000 – “Northern Great Lakes States” from The National Atlas of the United States of America (1970) (from William Rankin’s After the Map)
But the IMW universal maps had a problem: they were not always useful as tools for particular purposes. Land use planning, for example, requires different types of maps from oil exploration. William Rankin’s excellent book, After the Map, describes the limits of universal mapping, which drove twentieth-century innovations toward flexible, local coordinate frames. Newer approaches better placed the user in his or her environment, oriented toward a particular task. Aircraft pilots, for example, inhabited space in a new way and needed new techniques to navigate the landscape from above.
Or consider the task of firing artillery. At some level, warfare is fundamentally about moving things and people from my map into my enemy’s map. Yet even with the IMW, different countries used different projections for their maps, so the coordinate frames didn’t line up exactly, creating disquiet (and errant shells) at World War I’s Western front.
To improve their targeting, then, European armies began adapting surveying techniques to establish “grid” systems that would provide extremely precise local coordinate frames, without worrying too much how they mapped onto the face of the earth. Unlike latitude and longitude, grids had parallel and perpendicular lines amenable to simple plane trigonometry. On the battlefields, grids referenced accurate beacons and monuments, enabling highly precise artillery fire.
Unlike the global, god’s eye views of the IMW, grids had a kind of local, almost bottom-up appeal for users, and were widely adopted after the war. “Rather than centralizing authority,” Rankin writes, “grids were a way to make geographic knowledge widely accessible and put everyone — tax man and farmer alike — on a level playing field.” Like maps before them, grid coordinate systems were cognitive tools for inhabiting space in a new way.
Grids found their expression in various national surveys between the world wars, each referenced to national (or state level in the United States) monuments or beacons on the ground, often not compatible with each other. In 1947, the US Army coordinated all of these into the “Universal Transverse Mercator,” (UTM) a standardized grid system overlaid on the globe. The army recalculated the entire European grid system to make it UTM compatible. “UTM thus really did make the world flat,” Rankin writes, “because it enabled local users to use simple, easily calculable coordinates without worrying about the details of a global frame.”
The UTM grid  (via Wikimedia Commons)
UTM coordinates were also easily compatible with emerging technologies of radio, radar, and computing. Radio navigation devices first appeared across the landscape to replace lights and fire beacons for guiding aircraft. During the 1930s, the United states installed a “Transcontinental airway” system of radio beacons (its descendants are with us still as the VOR system of aviation beacons). During the so-called “battle of the beams” in World War II, both the British and the Germans developed radio systems (with evocative names like Knickebein, X-Gerät, and Y-Gerät, Gee, and Decca) that overlaid on each others’ countries to precisely direct bombers to their targets. Americans, using their new microwave radar techniques, added LORAN, a series of beacons spread across the landscape (Decca and LORAN survived for decades).
These systems had their limits too. Some were more accurate in certain areas (or certain dimensions) than others. Some were unreliable and prone to jamming or failure. But together they got the job done. “What mattered was not simply covering the earth with radio beacons or a smooth coordinate grid,” Rankin concludes, “but the ability of a navigator to complete a task at hand.” Even if different systems produced widely divergent answers, a human navigator could coordinate the systems to reduce uncertainty and find the way — a technique we today call “sensor fusion.”
 British flight navigator working at his chart table, 1941 (via Wikimedia Commons)
Gradually, navigators developed a systems approach that did not rely on any single piece of technology. “A navigator could experience different levels of precision and reliability from several technologies over the course of a single journey.” Imagine a navigator aboard a Cold War bomber, or an Apollo astronaut navigating to the moon, as the human ancestors of today’s Kalman filters and sensor fusion algorithms — reading different types of data and using the best at hand at any given moment.
Later in the twentieth century, satellite navigation systems like GPS built on these foundations, creating a universal grid (usually UTM) for placing the user in an environment. “Rather than contemplating an overhead view of a large expanse of the earth,” Rankin concludes, “navigating by [GPS] coordinates means inhabiting a virtual landscape of reference points, with your position always at the center.” GPS transformed location from a measurement into a utility, “a commodity available in much the same way as electricity or water.”
The iconic GPS user is not the General and his staff standing around a table gazing down on a map. In fact, you don’t need a map at all to benefit from GPS. The GPS user is you and me in the world, using a GPS receiver coupled to a database and the internet to drive on a highway, fly an aircraft, or plan a hike. Just don’t try it on 5th Avenue in New York, because it doesn’t work very well in cities, or indoors, or underground.
Which brings us to microlocation, the coming revolution in how we navigate and inhabit the world. The patterns we have seen in earlier eras will emerge anew, at micro-scales of size and precision, and at mass scales of interconnection.
Where GPS places us within the natural world (on the planet), microlocation places us within the built environment. Unlike GPS, it works in cities, indoors, and underground. Rather than depending on a single, global coordinate frame, microlocation creates a multitude of small, local, but highly precise coordinate frames, tied together by software and networks. Where GPS draws us out of the map and into our present location, microlocation draws us into precise relationships with the people, robots, and infrastructure around us.
It’s hard to believe now, but when GPS was still a vulnerable military project and not a household word, it struggled to find a clear purpose (DoD managers did not see any civilian applications). Microlocation is fortunately not in the same boat — at Humatics we see compelling use cases, matched by paying customers, especially in logistics, urban transportation, and manufacturing. But we are also aware that many more applications will be discovered by innovative users.
This is why 2019 dawns so special for Humatics — our microlocation products are on the market and shipping this year. We can’t wait to be surprised by how they change the world.