I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Rudyard Kipling, “The Elephant’s Child”
Quite some time ago, I came across this stanza in a blog by a geospatial person to illustrate the capability of geospatial technology. To a geospatial professional, the “what, when, how, why and who” has to be supported by ‘where’. Location is perhaps the single most important information that links all the rest of the questions and adds meaning to the answers. In the Covid pandemic, the crucial question, “where did the first case happen?” not only has medical implications, but it has political ramifications. Further down the line, contact tracing became a major activity which asked the question, “where have you been in the last so many days?” Even as the virus rampaged through the cities and countryside, the question was, “where are the hotspots, the hospitals, the oxygen sources?” Now that the vaccines are here, the questions again include ‘where’ — where are the medical facilities, cold chains, routing of vaccines, etc.
Today, finding location has become that much easier because of the Global Navigation Satellite Systems, GNSS of which the US GPS is the forerunner. Others followed, and soon the smartphone revolution saw Assisted GPS enter these devices and make location both easy and trivial. Trivial because just knowing a location is not enough for any serious application. In the examples relating to Covid, location is just the starting point for planning, execution, and monitoring. Additional systems and data are needed to supplement location data for meaningful use. It is not enough to know what is where but also what action is needed at that location.
Location does not automatically mean GNSS. Indoor navigation requires other techniques. Similarly, application of location to Blockchain applications like Ethereum’s FOAM finds that GPS cannot be relied upon and is promoting a land-based RF location technology for precise location of assets related to Smart Contracts on Blockchain. For mission critical applications like C4ISR and for aircraft navigation, location has to be accurate, reliable and secure.
A digital map ranks very high on these issues but suffers from the timeliness of the information. Where the requirement is for real time or near real-time location information, for example in aircraft navigation, modern electronic systems enable real-time location which is used with digital aeronautical maps. Aircraft landing approaches rely heavily on different types of electronic aids which locate the aircraft with high precision in real time.
GNSS has added to this toolkit by providing real-time position location and navigation. Space Based Augmentation Systems, SBAS like WAAS, EGNOS and GAGAN now routinely offer navigation assistance to aircraft, ships and land-based vehicles with an error of about one meter.
As IoT devices proliferate, their location becomes important in order to be able to locate their data in Space. Typical applications like geo-sensors which record Earth movements are needed for earthquake early detection models.
The term location has an Earth based connotation which is not justified. As we enter the era of interplanetary travel and establishment of bases on the Moon and later perhaps Mars, location will take on a different meaning altogether. Today we track satellites and spacecraft from observation points on the Earth. That may soon change.