How easy it is to take technology for granted. Perhaps the most fitting testament to the dependability of modern electronics is that, after the honeymoon period of getting to know the latest gadget that we just can't live without, we tend not to notice them until they let us down. We all know the frustration of losing our GPS signal on the way to an important meeting in an unfamiliar area, or the battery going flat while on an urgent call.
It's human nature to take the familiar for granted, but stop and consider a couple of recent examples of how much it takes to get these technologies right, and the consequences of getting them wrong.
Is that a fire in your pocket?
Of course, there are worse things that can happen than suffering a flat battery at an inconvenient time. One of the biggest scares in consumer electronics in recent times has been the cases of lithium-ion batteries catching fire or exploding. I've read stories of people suffering severe burns from their e-cigarette's battery catching fire, and one bloke even lost seven teeth when his exploded. I'll refrain from commenting on the irony of this because it's no laughing matter.
Probably the most publicised example of batteries catching fire was Samsung's doomed Note7, numerous incidents of which prompted the company to first recall and then terminate production of one of the most eagerly anticipated phablet smartphones of all time. The company has released details of its investigation into the incidents, which were apparently caused by faulty batteries that suffered short circuits across their electrodes. As a result, it has implemented a host of extra quality and safety processes, which is no surprise since the fiasco is estimated to have cost Samsung at least $5 billion in the fourth quarter of 2016. Then again, that didn't stop it from making record profits of $7,9 billion in the same quarter, so what's the harm?
I can see my house from here
Since it became operational in 1995, the USA's Global Positioning System (GPS) has become synonymous with global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). It is not generally well known that Russia has a satellite constellation of its own, GLONASS, which has been providing full global coverage since 2011. In fact, most mobile phones made in the last couple of years can receive both GPS and GLONASS signals, and dynamically switch to whichever one provides the strongest signal in a particular location.
Now, the European Space Agency has launched its own GNSS called Galileo, which entered initial service on 15 December 2016. After five years of launches, there are now 18 Galileo satellites in orbit. The most recent four, launched in November, will undergo months of testing before being deemed fit to join the constellation. The full Galileo constellation will consist of 24 satellites plus orbital spares, intended to prevent any interruption in service.
Even the little details are impressive. Since Galileo’s timing needs to be accurate down to the nanosecond range, each satellite has an atomic (hydrogen maser) clock which uses the ultra stable 1,4 GHz transition in a hydrogen atom to measure time to within 0,45 nanoseconds over 12 hours. A second, independent rubidium clock provides accuracy to within 1,8 nanoseconds over 12 hours. While that is astonishing accuracy by most standards, it's still too much drift for such a demanding application, so the clocks need to be synchronised regularly with a network of even more stable ground-based reference clocks. These clocks on the ground also generate a worldwide time reference called Galileo System Time (GST), the standard for Europe's system, accurate to 28 billionths of a second.
That's a whole lot of preparation, hard work and engineering of multiple disciplines – 3 billion Euros worth in fact. If all goes according to plan, our smart devices will soon be able to pick and choose between GPS, GLONASS and Galileo signals, as well as China's imminent BeiDou system.
And if all goes according to plan, we won't even notice.
Brett van den Bosch