It's a Micro World after all is a blog dedicated to discussing pretty much whatever I feel like. When I delve into scientific matters it will primarily be discussing microbiology (agricultural, bioenergy, and environmental focus). Otherwise, I'll probably ramble on about sports and life.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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The following article is a pretty good read, and once you comprehend how embedded this technology is in our lives, and in turn how simple it is to disrupt, it's also pretty scary.
Why would a GPS outage cause such disruption? These satellite signals now do a lot more than inform your car's satnav. GPS has become an "invisible utility" that we rely on without realising. Cellphone companies use GPS time signals to coordinate how your phone talks to their towers. Energy suppliers turn to GPS for synchronising electricity grids when connecting them together. And banks and stock exchanges use the satellites for time-stamps that prevent fraud. Meanwhile, our societies' reliance on GPS navigation is growing by the year.
Not that GPS technology is "new" (the full system has been up and running since 1994), but it's amazing at how many people have glommed onto it and integrated it into systems that GPS was never intended (nor designed) for. All of which reminded me of work, and how we can fall into the trap of leaning too heavily on a single technique for our research endeavors.
When I first arrived at the institution I now work at, my support staff and I had to build the microbiology capabilities there from the ground up. There had been no past microbiologists, so there was no machinery waiting for us. In several respects I think that was a good thing because it allowed us to look at the areas we were going to work in, and figure out the best methods for answering the questions those areas needed answering. Obviously being molecular biologists by trade, we were biased in the route we'd take to achieve most of these results (our "bread and butter" techniques), but we made it a point to not shy away from techniques we may not be entirely familiar with if (1) they offered more insight, and (2) they gave us a better bang for our buck (our "outside the box" techniques). Additionally, we made it a point to develop a handful of additional techniques that would allow us to easily collaborate with other researchers inside and outside of our institution. In essence, we diversified.
We're approaching our fifth year of operations now and I'd say that things are going pretty well. It took some serious investments of time, effort, and money to get past the "merely proficient" stage however. We actively visited labs which did these protocols and trained with them. Additionally we went to paid training sessions at large univerisities and companies for more hands on experience with techniques and the machines we purchased. The additional techniques we "brought on board" have allowed us to strike up several collaborations which routinely generate papers for us. Our "bread and butter" techniques remain the strong foundation which generates our first authors papers each year, and a couple of our "outside the box" techniques can be squarely placed into the "bread and butter" category now.
I know this sounds like a lot of common sense that really doesn't need to be repeated. However I think the desire to stick with the comfortable -- techniques we picked up in our graduate career and postdoc -- can, if relied upon too much, and for too long, can have unfavorable consequences. IMO, you need to consider diversification (haven't we learned anything from the stock market crashes?) for the long term stability and growth of your lab. Yes, the desire to glom onto a shiny technique can be hard to resist (just like a lot of people glommed onto the use of GPS technology to bolster their own work), but one should also look for other alternatives.
Fortunately, there's a backup right under our noses, and the idea been around since the 1940s. Just like GPS, it provides navigation and accurate timing. It's called Enhanced LORAN (eLORAN).
Basic LORAN (for long range navigation) is similar to GPS but uses ground-based radio signals rather than from satellites. It doesn't have global coverage, but does beat GPS on some things. LORAN operates at a far longer wavelength than GPS signals and is more powerful. Both of these features make it virtually impossible to jam.
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Interesting article and thoughts. Are any companies using LORAN right now? How do you know about it?
LORAN got tubed under the Obama adminstration because it was "redundant". The Coast Guard stopped their LORAN transmissions towards the end of 2010. The UK uses eLORAN, though the US has yet to adopt the system. It has had some support in the Senate (Jay Rockefeller D-WV), but I'm not sure if it is something the US will adopt until it's too late.
The following Popular Mechanics article (from 2009) is a good read on the issue:
Seems like it would make sense to have a backup in place in the event of an attack on the system we have now.
On the other hand, maybe the reason it was shelved is because the military wants access to it exclusively. I could think of a few reasons where that would come in handy for secret ops.
Redundancy is always a good thing, especially when a home-kit can disrupt the system you rely on heavily. If we have learned anything, it's that a motivated individual with some know-how can achieve some pretty impressive results. Nowadays, that know-how isn't all that hard to come by either.
If the government "scrapped" eLORAN to use for their own machinations, and left the population of the US at risk ... shame on them.