Global Positioning Shift

australia[Image: Australia, rendered by Neema Mostafavi for NASA].

Australia, it turns out, is not quite where maps think it is. Thanks to plate tectonics, the island nation is moving north by 1.5 centimeters a year, which means that the entire country is now nearly five feet further north than existing cartography suggests it should be.

As a result, Australia’s lat/long coordinates are going “to shift,” the BBC reports.

Interestingly, “the body responsible for the change said it would help the development of self-driving cars, which need accurate location data to navigate.” In other words, the navigational capabilities of autonomous vehicles and other self-driving robots are, at least indirectly, affected by plate tectonics—by the ground literally moving beneath their wheels.

“If the lines [of latitude and longitude] are fixed, you can put a mark in the ground, measure its co-ordinate, and it will be the same co-ordinate in 20 years,” explained Dan Jaksa of Geoscience Australia. “It’s the classical way of doing it.”
Because of the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, these local co-ordinates drift apart from the Earth’s global co-ordinates over time.
“If you want to start using driverless cars, accurate map information is fundamental,” said Mr Jaksa.
“We have tractors in Australia starting to go around farms without a driver, and if the information about the farm doesn’t line up with the co-ordinates coming out of the navigation system there will be problems.”

Put another way, gaps have been opening up between the world of robotic navigation and the actual, physical barriers those machines seek to navigate.

You could perhaps argue that there is our Australia—that is, a human Australia of streets, walls, and buildings—and then there is the machines’ Australia, a parallel yet intersecting world of skewed reference points and offset walls, a kind of ghost nation, inhabited only by robots, departing further and further from the limits of human geographic experience every day.

aussie
[Image: Via the Australian Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping].

Of course, this would not be the first time that the accuracy of geographic information has a measurable effect on precision agriculture. However, it is also not the first time that geographers have realized that they don’t know precisely where a country really is.

In his recent book about GPS, Pinpoint, author Greg Milner writes about “the geopolitical importance of geodesy,” or the study of the Earth’s exact geometric shape (it is an “oblate spheroid”).

“The geopolitical significance of geodesy increased with the onset of the Cold War,” Milner writes. “In a very real sense, the West did not know the exact location of the USSR”—and, thus, did not know exactly how or where to target its missiles. “‘Missiles were the big drivers in getting the datums tied down,’ Gaylord Green remembers. ‘If I wanted to hit a target in Russia, I couldn’t hit squat if I didn’t have their datum tied down to mine.’”

Briefly, it’s worth pointing out a fascinating side-note from Milner’s book: “The trajectory a missile follows is influenced by the gravity field where it is launched, and its aim can be disrupted by the gravity at the target, so countries often kept their gravity data classified.” I love the John le Carré-like implications of classified gravity data, including what it might take to smuggle such info out of an enemy nation.

But let’s go back to the missile thing: in addition to the question of how farm equipment and other self-driving vehicles can successfully navigate the landscape when they don’t, in fact, have the correct terrestrial coordinates, Australia’s strange misplacement on global maps implies that every potential military target in the country would also have been roughly five feet away from where existing charts say they are.

An old, uncorrected missile system in a decaying military base somewhere mistakenly fires sixty years from now, rockets off toward Australia… and plummets into the sea, missing its coastal target by several feet. Plate tectonics as a slow national defense mechanism.

Read more at the BBC.

Monocular Landscapes, Unmanned Drones, and the Orbital Future of Australian Archaeology

The new magazine Monocle has been getting loads of press lately, from both lovers and haters; and while I can’t necessarily say that I’m one or the other, I will admit to erring on the side of enthusiasm.
There’s some great stuff in there.

I’ve only got the first issue, however, so I’m not exactly an informed reader; and I won’t be performing a rigorous review of the magazine here – discussing its design, intentions, etc. etc. etc. I simply want to point out a few cool articles that have an architectural or landscape bent.
Which is quite a large part of the magazine, as it happens.
First, for instance, we take a brief trip to Paris, where we step down onto the Champs-Elysées and learn that a Citroën “flagship showroom” will soon open up, putting shiny cars with waxed bonnets on display in the window. Then there’s a glossy photo-essay on Le Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, “the city were timing is everything” (they manufacture watches). And there’s a quick visit to the nearby town of Sedrun, Switzerland, where the Gotthard Base Tunnel “is being dug more than 600m below the [earth’s surface], through nearly 58km of Massif stone.” A subterranean train station, located at the midpoint of the tunnel, will be “linked to the surface by the world’s tallest lift.” Long-term readers may note that this same tunnel was mentioned on BLDGBLOG back in December.

[Image: Gotthard Base Tunnel, via Wikipedia].

Awesomely, Monocle then turns its cyclopean gaze onto the empty skies above Kemijärvi, Finland, north of the Arctic Circle, where “a test centre for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)” has opened. The test center is run by a firm called Robonic; Robonic “has taken advantage of the vast, virtually unused airspace – a rarity in Europe – above Finnish Lapland to create the only private test centre in the world devoted solely to UAVs.” This would also seem to be the perfect setting for a new novel by J.G. Ballard. Or an Alfred Hitchcock film: unmanned drones fly state secrets across the Arctic Circle…
Meanwhile, could you use these launchers, I wonder, to hurl small buildings into the sky? And if you could, would you do it?
Frustratingly, the article doesn’t ask these questions.

[Image: The launcher for a UAV; courtesy of Robonic].

Moving on, we read, Budapest wants to clean up its river; as it is, the Danube is now “a muddy grey-brown, thanks in part to the sewage gushing out underneath Elizabeth Bridge” – which is a structure, not a woman.
Apparently a “warehouse district” will soon be built, modeled after the Docklands in London.
There’s also a great article on China’s bankrolling of infrastructural construction projects throughout Africa:

China’s influence in Africa is growing at an unprecedented rate. Across the continent the Chinese are building stadiums, parliaments, roads, offering their expertise as well as they wallet. But China is not just giving to Africa, it is taking too. By the end of next year China will have become the world’s largest importer of oil, and most of it will come from Africa. China is also in desperate need of minerals such as copper, aluminium and iron ore – and African nations are willing to provide them.

This topic was also previously explored on BLDGBLOG.
I’m going on a bit here, I have to say, but there’s even a feature-length exposé on Bartenbach LichtLabor (BLL) and their “daylight-redirection” scheme in Rattenberg, Austria – a project Pruned told us about so long ago.
Monocle explains how BLL plans “to create an elaborate system of heliostats and fixed mirrors that could bounce sunlight from a nearby mountaintop on to a hill opposite and into the main street’s gift shops and cafés.” Without these mirrors – and their “secondary mirrors,” in turn – the town would spend “almost four months of the year in the shadow of Rat mountain.” In the shadow of Rat mountain!
The English name alone would cause depression.

[Image: The lighting technologies of Bartenbach LichtLabor].

To test these devices, BLL has constructed an “artificial sky… packed with fluorescent lamps, translucent lamps and LEDs.” It’s referred to as “the ultimate toy for a lighting geek.”
Anyway, I could go on and on – it’s an impressive magazine.
However, I do have to mention, finally, the one article I was actually intending to write about here before I started drinking coffee: on page 70, there’s a short, one-column piece about Alice Gorman.
Gorman is an Australian archaeologist whose university homepage states her interests as “material culture relating to space exploration, including terrestrial launch sites like Woomera (South Australia), Kourou (French Guiana) and Hammaguir (Algeria).” She also studies “orbital debris” and “planetary landing sites.”
Gorman’s got a blog called Space Age Archaeology; she’s got a research abstract online discussing “the archaeological record of human endeavours beyond the atmosphere” (!); and she’s got a downloadable PDF about all of the above. Vaguely similar topics, meanwhile, pop up in an old – and somewhat confusingly typeset – BLDGBLOG post called “White men shining lights into the sky“…
Monocle further tells us that Gorman has been “calling on the United Nations this month to create a protected ‘heritage list'” for orbital objects, “including the Vanguard 1 satellite, launched in 1958 and now the oldest man-made object in orbit.”
Gorman: “Maybe the only evidence that a country has a right to be in geostationary orbit will be [the presence of] an old satellite.” As space fills up with more and more junk – not to mention working satellites – she says: “It’s not impossible that being able to claim access to an orbit could be a bit like Aboriginal people in Australia being able to say, ‘This is where my ancestors camped.'”

[Image: The International Space Station].

A few things: 1) Last week I interviewed science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson for BLDGBLOG and I asked him about this very topic – directly referencing Monocle: will we yet see an archaeology of space, complete with in-orbit excavation sites, etc. etc. etc.? I hope to have that interview up and public within the month.
2) The very idea of an orbiting, geostationary archaeological site strikes me as so amazing, and so fun to think about, that I almost can’t believe it. What will happen, say, in 400 years, or 900 years, or 1500 years, when the International Space Station has become like Petra or Skara Brae or even Macchu Picchu – the lost and dusty relic of a dead civilization – visited by space tourists with a thing for archaeology, snapping photos of themselves beside old push-button consoles as the sun rises through command windows in the background…? Masked grad students earn summer credits in Forensic Anthropology, roping off portions of the Station, mapping ancient social dynamics as dictated by architectural space…
Ruins in orbit around the earth!
Anyway, I found the first issue of Monocle to be really exciting and well-done, and I’m looking forward to issues two, three, four, etc.
Although… note to Monocle: it is actually cheaper to buy the magazine issue by issue here in the States; subscribing is nearly 30% more expensive.