Do you know where you are?

Navigation has invaded our dreams of the future. Fleets of driverless cars will transport us around cities. As you are driven past the shop that you viewed online, the mannequin wearing the dress that you clicked on will wave and call your name. Or you could stay at home and let a drone deliver your goods. This is the vision with which innovative companies such as Google and Amazon tempt us.

The days of being lost should be over. Access to satellite navigation is ubiquitous, and 80% of the adult population worldwide is likely to own a smartphone by 2020.

But it is still not easy for people or machines to find their way around. Satellite navigation is unreliable because it does not work well indoors or in built-up areas. When your phone tells you where you are in a shopping center, for example, it will actually be a guess based on ground-based WiFi networks.

That is because signals from satellites are weak (like viewing a 20-watt light bulb from almost 20,000 kilometers away), prone to error and easily disrupted. Wayward satellites repurposed to test general relativity

More satellites are being launched to improve coverage. By 2020, 30 orbiters from Galileo, the European satellite-navigation system, will complement the US Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Russian GLONASS network. China launched the twenty-first satellite in its BeiDou system.

Successful navigation indoors will need other solutions, such as a combination of wall-mounted antennas and WiFi.

Quantum physics could come to the rescue. Although the technology is still in its infancy and will take more than a decade to develop, small and super-sensitive quantum sensors might pinpoint our location to within centimeters by picking up tiny changes in Earth’s gravitational or magnetic fields.

But navigation is about more than just knowing your position. Newspapers regularly pick up ‘satnav’ disaster stories — such as a lorry bound for the Mediterranean that arrived at Gibraltar Point near Skegness in the United Kingdom. A sense of direction, a sense of scale and a map are essential. And knowledge of where you want to go also helps. The disappearance in 2014 of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is a reminder of the vastness of our world.

Mobility will not become intelligent unless we break two bad habits.

First, we must recognize that digital navigation tools do not come for free. They rely on expensive infrastructure — satellites or ground stations — that governments must pay for. The United States invested more than US $10 billion to put the GPS satellites in place and spends around $1 billion each year to maintain the service.

Second, we should make better use of our innate capabilities. Machines know where they are, not the best way to get to a destination; it might be more reliable to employ a human driver than to program an autonomous car to avert crashes. If we do not cherish them, our natural navigation abilities will deteriorate as we rely ever more on smart devices.

Remember, we’re all in this together,

Derek Paulson

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