It’s dizzying to contemplate: in the past decade, everything on our maps has moved by more than 1m, as Australia’s continental tectonic plate slides inexorably north at a rate of 7 cm a year.
“Geoscience Australia defines latitude and longitude for the country through the national Geocentric Datum, and last year we adjusted that by 1.5 m based on projections to 2020,” says Dr John Dawson, a geodetics expert who is the program manager of the CRC for Spatial Information (CRCSI) Positioning Program.
If you use the Uber ride-sharing app, you may have noticed its location accuracy is improving. Over the next few years, there will be a significant increase in this kind of precision.
Updating our latitude and longitude is just one stage of an overhaul of Australia’s mapping and positioning systems, which currently rely heavily on overseas-run spatial infrastructure.
“Precision in latitude and longitude is becoming very important as new positioning technologies with finer accuracy come online,” says Dawson. “For example, if I measure the location of a pipe using a device with 10 cm accuracy, then come back a year later to dig in that location, then relative to latitude and longitude, it would look like that pipe had moved.”
Currently, positioning in Australia has accuracy between 5m and 10m. Trials are now underway on satellite technology with the potential to upgrade that location accuracy to less than 10 cm.
“With applications such as self-driving cars, 5 m of accuracy can put your vehicle on the wrong side of the road,” explains Dawson.
Cross sector and cross-ditch collaboration
Satellite positioning technology has revolutionised our lives, influencing everything from air transport to agriculture, and real estate to retail.
All of these are set to change dramatically in coming years as improved precision makes so many more applications possible.
The CRCSI’s Positioning Program research stream is part of the next era in satellite positioning, trialling three new technologies that will all potentially contribute to a Satellite-Based Augmentation System (SBAS) for the Australasian region.
The trials involve cross-industry collaboration with more than 30 organisations. They are funded by a $12 million contribution from the Australian Government, plus another NZ$2 million from the New Zealand government, and aim to establish a nationwide, high-accuracy, real-time positioning infrastructure.
The CRCSI estimates that updating our national positioning infrastructure will add an estimated 1.1–2.1% to Australia’s GDP by 2030, through productivity gains in mining, construction and agriculture. Benefits will also be widespread across tourism, transport and emergency services.
“We’ve taken GPS for granted in Australia as something provided as a global public infrastructure by the US, and we’ve accrued value as positioning improves efficiency and drives new products and services,” says Dawson.
The new technologies being trialled will enable precise positioning for a fraction of the cost of currently available commercial services. Providing it as public infrastructure will also reap productivity benefits dwarfing the initial investment.
Three technologies under trial
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is the world’s best known satellite-based navigation system and comprises a ‘constellation’ of 24 communications craft orbiting Earth.
Designed in the 1970s for military applications and funded by the US government, GPS is now accessed by billions of devices worldwide.
In 2020, Europe’s Galileo system, supported by 30 satellites, will become fully operational, improving location accuracy for applications across the planet.
While most of Australia’s satellite positioning currently relies on GPS, users in the USA, Europe, China, Russia, India and Japan are already using the more precise first-generation SBAS technology on a daily basis.
Geoscience Australia has partnered with global technology companies GMV, Inmarsat and Lockheed Martin to trial satellite technologies, and CRCSI is managing a range of industry projects trialling sector-based applications.
Under trial are first-generation SBAS, switched on in June 2017; second-generation SBAS, which came online in September 2017; and Precise Point Positioning, turned on in October 2017. These technologies combine satellite signals with ground stations.
Australia was the first country to transmit second-generation SBAS signals, and the first to trial Precise Point Positioning corrections integrated into an SBAS service.