So Hang On….

I subscribe to a number of blogs and occasionally actually catch up with reading them. This one: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18889594 by Jonathon Amos on the BBC shocked me – quite simply, how come no one has ever done this before?

If you can’t click that link, it’s a discussion on how transponders currently installed on most commercial ships are being linked up with newly-launched satellites, enabling them to be tracked once line-of-sight contact is lost over the horizon. Implying that until this service was launched, any ship more than 5km outside of port, could literally be anywhere in a given ocean. For sake of comparison, the English channel is never narrower than about 35km – so for any Dover-Calais crossing, ports are reliant on radio for 5/7ths of your journey!

I suppose that nowadays we are so used to having up to date information on our lives being constantly and easily broadcast. GPS is the most obvious connection to the above story, but social media via smartphones can let anyone know where you are, what you’re doing, how you’re feeling… Combine the $9 trillion worth of goods being shipped by sea every year, with the growingly public issue of modern-day piracy and I genuinely can’t believe that more time and money hasn’t been put in to connecting the existing AIS system with the massive number of satellites currently orbiting earth.

Obviously this isn’t something I’ve put a lot of thought into before, but I think it just highlights how some things can really slip through cracks. Such a large portion of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the electronic equipment we use is shipped by sea – and for the majority of its journey, no one outside the crew of the container ship has any idea if it’s still on course.

Extend this metaphor to everyday life and things start to get scary. Just how confident are you that your car is really working perfectly? Are you actually monitoring all the inner workings – and how able would you be to diagnose a fault if one came up? Essentially, when applied to ships, knowing how well everything’s going at the start and finish is considered shockingly inferior. Is checking your car for an MOT once a year enough without the same level of monitoring that is now being brought into shipping?

To my mind, this is where sport comes in. At any point in a Formula 1 race, engineers sitting in the garage can monitor almost anything you care to know about the car out on track – engine temperatures, tyre pressures and temperatures and how heavily the driver is using his brakes. Should the car break down, engineers often know where to look for the issue before the car has even been brought back to the garage.

F1 has been a constant source of innovations that move to road cars. Previously, systems such as semi-automatic gearboxes and power steering were developed to give competitive drivers every possible advantage – now they are extremely common. Everyone is looking at the regenerative braking KERS system, but I suspect that improvements in self-diagnosing cars might be something else that gradually becomes more and more commonplace in the near future. Whether that affects the price of fixing such problems is a different matter!

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