While celebrating the start of America’s Cup racing come Monday don’t forget to shed a tear and hoist a cold one for our old friend Loran, which is scheduled to get shut down the same day. For you Sarah Palin fans who like to rail against the idiocy of the federal government, this should make an excellent talking point. Having spent $160 million over the past 10 years to upgrade Loran to “enhanced” eLoran status so it can serve as an effective back-up for the GPS system, the government will now flush that money down the toilet, in spite of the fact that shutting down the Loran system will probably cost more than finishing the upgrade.
The death of eLoran seems even more incomprehensible in light of the fact that absolutely no one believes GPS is infallible. Less than three weeks ago the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, opened Tuft University’s Fletcher Conference on National Security Strategy and Policy with a diatribe on the vulnerability of GPS. And the most comprehensive government study ever conducted on the viability of Loran and the vulnerability of GPS concluded unequivocally that eLoran is the only cost-effective way to back up GPS.
Such irrational decision-making is, of course, perfectly in keeping with past policies regarding electronic navigation. You may recall, for example, that the federal government once happily spent our money both degrading civilian GPS signals (to improve our national security) and correcting those degraded signals (to improve our personal safety).
No doubt those most bummed by the demise of Loran are the folks at CrossRate Technology, who started selling their eLGPS 1110 receiver, which can process both eLoran and GPS signals, mere days before the final death sentence was announced. The eLGPS, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a very cool piece of gear. When GPS signals are reliable, it uses eLoran data to refine the GPS data; when GPS signals are sketchy or unavailable, it relies primarily on eLoran. It also provides heading data that’s accurate to less than one degree (which is great for autopilots and stuff like radar/chart overlays) even when a vessel is stationary. Thanks mostly to yours truly, who served on the judging committee, it won an honorable mention at the NMMA Innovation Awards when it first appeared in public at the Miami International Boat Show last year.
Fortunately for CrossRate (and sailors elsewhere), not all governments are as stupid as ours. According to John Harrington, the company’s director of business development, they are now gearing up to introduce the eLGPS to the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, most particularly Europe, where eLoran upgrades are still going forward. (He does note that Canada, unfortunately, will be forced to follow the U.S. and shut down their Loran system, as it is interdependent with ours.)
One immediate impact of having no Loran in the U.S., explains Harrington, is that air traffic in Alaska might be affected (got that, Sarah???), as GPS coverage in high latitudes can be spotty. He told me also the government may well not understand who else relies on Loran until after they shut it off. So maybe there is some hope the feds will come to their senses after the fact.
Meanwhile, the one bright side I see here is that I now have a good excuse to lecture you all on celestial navigation. You can look forward to some choices words on this topic in the near future.
PS: I almost forgot… wanted to share this link to an interesting post by the U.S. Coast Guard on the history of Loran stations.