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Australia's tectonic plates continue to shift – how do GPS systems keep up?

The tectonic plate under Australia is the fastest moving in the world. How can we be certain that Australian GPS systems will remain accurate and up-to-date?

The Land Down Under seems to be a difficult continent to pin down these days – especially with GPS technology. That’s because satellite GPS systems measure geographical positions based on longitude and latitude, which are fixed and do not change with the movement of continents. Indeed, all continents drift at various speed, but Australia seems to be winning the race by drifting at around 7 centimeters per year. While the rest of the world has been diligently making adjustments in order to keep up with the GPS grid, Australia has not made any adjustments since 1994. For the past 25 years, the continent has moved about 1.8 meters (almost 6 feet) to the north. To determine the seriousness of this issue – especially when it comes to the safety of driverless cars – we asked an Australian data analyst to weigh in.

Saadullah Saddozai is a senior data analyst at the Flight Centre Travel Group; a significant part of his job is understanding the reliability of data and how it can be used to solve various business-critical problems. He has been observing how Australia’s open data initiatives are accelerating open innovation, and in turn the modernization of legacy systems in government and in the private sector.

How did you first get interested in GPS technology and datum reference systems?

My mechanical engineering background helped me land a position in the Oil & Gas sector, after which I moved into the data science and analytics space. I was working here in Australia as a data analyst for a client as part of my master’s degree back in 2016 when I first came across Geocentric Datum of Australia 1994 (GDA94); a reference system for Australian maps and geography. It wasn’t until I started exploring locations for a new business venture for my client that I found myself working with GIS systems and playing around with maps. That’s when I realized that the last time the GDA94 had been updated was in 1994. As an engineer, I understand how reference systems work – they always refer back to a fixed location point. But I also knew that the tectonic plate under Australia is the fastest moving tectonic plate in the world, so it didn’t take long for me to realize that the reference system I was using could be very unreliable. This led me to do more research on the topic.

And what did you find?

Considering that every year the Australian continent moves 7 centimeters towards the northeast with a little bit of clockwise-rotational extra movement, and considering that the GDA94 is a static datum, I realized that the continental drift caused by the Australian tectonic plate is simply not accounted for.

7 centimeters per year doesn’t sound like much...

It’s quite enough to cause major problems in industries that rely on high-precision GPS systems. For example, the Australian mining industry uses autonomous trucks relying on GPS systems. Similarly, in our agricultural industry there has been a lot of drone technology innovation being used to monitor crops. If the datum line isn’t being kept up-to-date, the drones may crash. And when we think about all the GPS-dependent innovation that is coming in the near future, like self-driving cars or the growing dependency of GPS devices by the average person, the repercussions of relying on outdated location data could be catastrophic.

What's being done to rectify the issue?

An Australian organization called Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping came up with a two-phase approach. Phase one is to update the datum line from GDA94 to GDA2020, which they implemented near the end of 2017. And while it remains a static reference system, they have set it up so that by January 1, 2020, the datum line in Australia will be in sync with Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) such as GPS. Phase two will implement an Australian Terrestrial Reference Frame (ATRF), which adds the speed of the Australian continental drift per year to GDA2020. This will help achieve a time-dependent reference frame, so that Australian GPS coordinates remain in sync in real time. Ultimately we will have a sustainable solution to the continental drift issue in Australia.


Can we assume that the situation has been fixed?

Yes, but just to give you a perspective, since the data was updated in 1994 and all the way until the implementation of GDA2020, Australia has actually moved northeast more than 1.5m on average. Companies that were using GIS systems before the GDA2020 reference frame was released featured incorrect location data. Since the GDA2020 release in 2017, there are now ways for GIS software developers to keep their reference points up-to-date in real time.

And now everyone’s up to date?

Not quite. I think that the big companies are strict about keeping up with the latest updates and their systems are in sync, but I’m not sure about some of the tech startups that keep popping up. If they have low budget and few resources allocated, they can end up producing software that might not provide users with reliable location data. It’s important for startups to have success early on and a small lack of knowledge about an issue like this can be crucial. That's why I like to talk about this subject. A lot of companies say that they understand data, but from what I’ve seen, business doesn't understand data and its underlying issues. That's why jobs for data analysts have recently become very popular. Companies came to the realization that an expertise in data science and analytics is required in pretty much any modern enterprise.

What’s the most exciting thing you foresee happening with this technology in the near future?

A driverless car picking me up and taking me directly to my destination. I believe autonomous vehicles will completely reshape the transportation industry in the coming years, and it will significantly change the way we look at commuting.

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