Thursday, January 21, 2010

LORAN - Nice knowing you. RIP

The Loran system shuts down for good on the 8th of Feb 2010. That is in about 15 days. The US coastguard, which is primarily the organization responsible for the upkeep of the system, claims that it is no longer required. I believe they are right. Those guys have been getting a lot of flak on the net since they announced the closure in Nov last year, and I am writing this so that at least they have one blog post they can show to the next congressman that bangs on their door.

I find myself being the devils advocate in this particular argument. I hate it when new kids become too reliant on one technology. I hate it when duty officers don't even know where the sextant is kept. I hate it that when I ask the chap to tell me the range to a ship, he checks the AIS instead of the RADAR. I hate it all. But here's the thing. Even if I hate it, it is still going to happen.
People have not used the Loran for a long time. And they are not going to start anytime soon. Hell, honestly, with feeds of GPS going into the ECDIS and Radars, no one even looks at the GPS anymore except when plotting positions on the chart.

Let us look at a few arguments raised against the shutting down of the Loran.

Firstly, About the reliability of the GPS. Guys, satellite navigation is here to stay. Sure GLONASS and the Galileo are having a rough time, but there is no doubt that they will be up and running. As per Wiki, the satellites launched by the GPS system from 2010 will no longer have the ability to implement Selective Ability (SA). So this means, after a few years, even if the US government did want to apply SA, it couldn't.

My biggest worry with the GPS is that it is controlled by the US. As a non-US citizen, I don't like it that a foreign government can cut off my principle aid to navigation at anytime. But if that did happen, how in heavens name would LORAN help me? Uncle Sam isn't going to forget to pull the plug on that system. I would rather prefer that the US Govt took all the money they spend on Loran and put in into making the GPS even better.

Even if I were a US Citizen, I might be concerned that the Al-Quida might knock off the GPS Satellites using American supplied missiles. But couldn't they also attack the Loran stations with their exploding underwear? After all the Locations of the Loran Stations is no longer the great secret that it was back in the second world war.

Also, very few vessels out at sea are even equipped with a LORAN Receiver. I put up a picture of a Loran receiver on the top of the post here because most of the newer generation wouldn't have even seen one. Hell, the last time I sailed on a vessel with a LORAN on board was way back in 1996. So today, even if the GPS went on a blink and we all were floundering around in mid ocean, we wouldn't have a Loran to go back to. Remember the madness that happened when all ships were asked to install the AIS at the same time? By the time all ships are going to be equipped with an LORAN, its going to be another couple of years. Why wouldn't somebody switch over to the Russian or European system in the meanwhile?

A little while back (I think it was in early 2000's), I was trading in the Australia region and there was a huge hue and cry by the usual small section of people, when the Aussie govt decided to stop transmitting weather faxes. Even I admitted that it was a pity. But the fact is that not enough people use it to make worthwhile. Change is inevitable and you sometimes have to let things go in dignity when it feel that it is no longer needed. The Loran system has long since gone past its dignified state. Just let it go.

1 comment:

paul the pirate (Yar!) said...

I grew up with LORAN aboard commercial fishing vessels. Although minor in the grand scheme of things, the communal store of knowledge of depth, contour and bottom type of the continental shelf of the east coast of the US is learned by TD, not lat/long for most inshore fishermen.

While this obviously has to change, it's going to be a confusing summer for lobstermen in the US, for certain. When the boats were put away for the year, LORAN was still functional, and in the rural places where lobstermen live, LORAN TD's were the principal part of the suite of tools fishermen use to adjust location for seasonal changes.

Glad I'm not fishing anymore. The learning curve, as the old guard get reacclimated will be bloody.