Tuesday, January 20, 2009

GPS, beyond network barriers


IT WAS thick. We couldn't even see 15 feet in front of us. It was also dark. The fog was so thick on the river and we didn't know what direction we would go. Me and my friend were curious and awaited to see how the Staten Island ferry would run 5.2 mile between the Whitehall Terminal in lower Manhattan and St. George Terminal in Staten Island despite dense fog.

A thick, wet, and chilling fog rolled in from the New York harbor and totally surrounded us. We even couldnʼt see the safety lights that were closed to us and could hardly see two boat lengths in front us and where the shore was. But we were thrilled casting our worries aside when we found we were moving ahead. Yes, the ferry made it all the way and we reached at the St. George Terminal within the allocated time, 25minutes, leaving behind the Statue of Liberty and Governors Island.

So how did the Staten Island ferry ease its way despite thick fog? For the most basic navigation in fog, a vessel needs a detailed chart, a compass, a sound producing device, a VHF radio (Very high frequency is the radio frequency range from 30 MHz to 300 MHz), and a good set of ears. Itʼs obviously a good idea to hoist a radar reflector for collision avoidance as it provides eyes-on-the-water when captain can no longer see due to fog. Besides these arrangements, the Staten Island ferry is included some additional electronics onboard to assist it in further substantiating its position and the location of other vessels around it. With GPS (Global Positioning System) and the magic of satellites, a vessel can locate its exact position at all times. By interfacing GPS and radar, radar can indicate graphically to the vessel where its next waypoint should appear. Other boats, buoys and the shoreline all show up clearly and give a fair warning of what to expect.

Although GPS allows navigating safely, even when caught in a heavy fog and can easily avoiding known hazards while staying steady on course, but if possible, itʼs good to avoid fog by staying in harbor as fog is one of the scariest situations at sea or river. But as long as the technology makes navigating the open seas and rivers accessible to even the novice boater, are the vessels and river transportation systems in Bangladesh fully equipped with modern technology because while fog affects motorists, its economic impact on highway systems is relatively minimal when compared with its impact on river or sea shipping or sailing?

Almost in everyday during this heavy foggy season, a good number of water transports are being stuck on water on shoals for hours in different water routes in Bangladesh as dense fog cut visibility. As for example like other days, several hundred vehicles, including passenger buses and goods trucks, got stranded on the both sides of Paturia-Doulatdia and Mawa-Kawrakandi routes on Wednesday, January 14, 2009 as ferry services were interrupted for hours due to dense fog. Water transports carrying thousands of passengers and goods on 28 different regional and inter-district routes of the southern region stranded in different points on their way and stuck on under water shoals for hours as navigability and visibility in different river routes rapidly lost after dense fog started falling.

Some 3,000 ferries ply the delta Bangladesh's hundreds of rivers and are a key means of transport. Although accidents are frequent, with most blamed on overloading, ageing boats, fail to meet basic safety standards, or unskilled skippers, but there is also a lack of modern technology available on the boats or ferries. Ferry accidents occur frequently in riverine Bangladesh and hundreds of people die every year. Last year on May 12, 2008, 44 people were found dead after a ferry carrying nearly 150 passengers capsized in the Ghorautura River, nearly 180 Km (113 miles) from Dhaka. In May 2002, at least 450 people were killed when a ferry with around 500 passengers on board capsized during a storm in the Meghna River. According to a rough statistics nearly 5,000 people died in ferry disasters in last 32 years since 1977.

Bangladesh is covered by a network of about 24,000 km of rivers, canals, creeks and lakes and there are 8,833 kilometres river ways in Bangladesh. At present, 72 million passengers travel by inland waterways every year. To make it more accessible to the commuters, there are a lot of things to take care of, but one of the main task is to march the vessels with modern technology.

Today is the age of fast and automated system and in every part of life people want the automated system. In communication system, this automated system is vastly needed. Good nautical charts and GPS mapping make planning easy. One can gather information about sights to see, places to visit, navigation waypoints, anchorage information, lists of marinas in the area, and a whole host of other information. By studying the charts of the region prior to departure, skipper can make a tentative route and can trace all of the alternate anchorages and approaches just in case he/she has to change his/her plans mid-trip.

GPS is a satellite-based navigation system made up of a network of satellites placed into orbit by the US Department of Defense between 1978 and 1994. The US government made the system available for civilian use in 1985. It works in any weather conditions, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. It receivers, normally hand-held battery-powered devices about the size of a small TV remote, take the information transmitted by the satellites and, using triangulation, calculate the user's exact location. The receiver compares the time a signal is transmitted by a satellite with the time it is received. It allows a person to know where he/she is without ambiguity. GPS has become a widely used aid to navigation worldwide, and a useful tool for map-making, land surveying, commerce, scientific uses, and hobbies such as geo coaching.

However, GPS satellites have some limitations: the radio signal is weak and does not penetrate some places like caves or inside buildings. Everything should be uniquely identified to be located through GPS. GPS receiver, however, isnʼt costly, but GPS technology isnʼt free for Bangladesh. Bangladesh has to buy or rent some space or time in the GPS satellite. But there is little argument among experts in the field that GPS technology has revolutionized navigation.

GPS is a nascent technology in Bangladesh, with only a handful of GPS receivers in the country; Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Army, and Bangladesh Police are in line to acquire GPS equipments. The huge traffic control of Dhaka city can be included in this serial.

Improving river transportation system with modern technology such as GPS and other networking peripherals will be an ideal example of 'Sheikh Hasina's call to build a digital Bangladesh. #

First published on January 17, 2009, New York

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York. He could be reached:

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