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The 3rd generation GPS navigation solution for remote and eco-sensitive areas.

What is a GPS receiver and what is a MAP?

Modern GPS receivers offer many functionalities (some can even tell best times for hunting and fishing), but all this clouds the answer to the question of “what is the basic function of a GPS receiver?

When a GPS unit communicates with satellites it does so to fulfill one primary objective, to establish and to report POSITION. It is reliant on the GPS, the “Global POSITIONING System” from which it receives its data.

Your GPS unit must inform you of your position ACCURATELY. This function, by itself, cannot show you how to reach your destination. The choice of a route to a destination is provided by a MAP (either paper map or GPS map).

Commercial paper maps and some really fine maps are available with many appealing features, e.g. satellite imagery background, telephone numbers of lodges, GPS coordinates etc, but all this clouds the answer to the question of “what is the basic function of a MAP?”

A MAP must RELIABLY show you how to reach your destination. It cannot do the job of a GPS receiver and tell you your location.

But if the two are put together, the 'accuracy' of the GPS unit (i.e. the accurate position report) and the 'reliability' of the MAP combine to provide a comprehensive navigation solution.

The two types of electronic maps; VECTOR and RASTER.

A VECTOR MAP comprises only of LINES, POINTS and POLYGONS of which their exact position in space is known. A vector map can be edited and changed easily. Vector map clarity or resolution remains clear at any zoom level (independent of map scale) but is very limited artistically because the only building blocks are LINES, POINTS and POLYGONS.

A RASTER MAP comprises of pixels of graphics. It is the end result of 'painting' on an electronic canvas. A raster map is bound by its map scale. Take a raster map of 1:250,000 and zoom in to 1:50,000 and the map will be unreadable.

A Vector map is like a document in a text editor, it can be edited easily. A raster map is like a scanned or Photostat copy of the document and it cannot be easily edited or changed.

The 1st generation GPS navigation solution - GO-TO point Navigation (and its Legacy).

1st generation GPS receivers (early 90's) were not 'map capable', i.e. they were unable to load vector maps for viewing on the screen. But the market place soon offered a new generation of paper maps and publications designed to be used in conjunction with these early GPS models.

This approach can be summarized as the “let’s take GPS to the map" concept. Printed on these maps are GPS coordinates of designated waypoints and critical road junctions. Using GPS in “GO-TO” waypoint navigation mode (i.e. straight line navigation) with these maps providing the general overview, the concept has indeed opened up remote pathways, resulting in ever increasing traffic that is sometimes to eco-sensitive areas.

The problem with “GO-TO” waypoint navigation is not so much the accuracy of destination waypoints on these maps (although some are notoriously inaccurate), but rather the method utilized in getting to these destinations.

Informed Overland travelers and skilled users of GPS receivers are able to devise GPS ROUTES and then employ ROUTE-NAVIGATION which is indeed the safe and the environmentally correct way of planning a journey in remote or eco-sensitive areas. However, skilful users of 1st generation GPS’s are few and far between, and practically no one now uses ROUTE navigation with these non-map enabled units.

The basic problem with a 1st generation navigation solution is that it offers little or no navigation support in the immediate field of view. For example, you are traversing the mud roads of Moremi or Savuti. Your GPS is in “GO-TO” waypoint mode, which tells you accurately that Savuti Camp is 28.345 km and 45.8282 degrees ahead. You may have combined this with a paper map which is printed to a scale of 1:250,000, offering a nice additional overview. However, when the road suddenly splits into two or three different seasonal tracks, there is now no information available on which to base your choice of route. Neither the GPS unit nor the map can give you this information in such circumstances.

GO-TO waypoint navigation is fine for aircraft pilots and skippers at sea who can travel in straight lines. But for bush navigation the concept has caused many ‘out-of-fuel’ situations -some catastrophic- and it has also caused irreparable damage to the Environment.

The sensitive gravel desert floor of North-West Namibia will carry the scars of 'vehicle track pollution' for the next 600 years because this is the amount of time required for the desert’s winds to repair the damage. There are numerous dead-end tracks leading into the unspoiled mountains of Damaraland. This is the result of indiscriminate leisure driving over many years.

The 1st generation GPS navigation concept and increased overland traffic has exacerbated the problem (confirmed), where time and time again travelers follow previous erroneous tracks thinking this will take them to a destination point and because the GO-TO pointer on their GPS unit shows this as the correct direction to take. The devastation is so bad it is visible from satellite photos. This “GPS pollution” is the unfortunate legacy of GO-TO waypoint navigation.

A variation on the 1st generation navigation concept is to use a laptop or PDA with scanned/calibrated raster maps loaded in the background. This is known as ‘real time navigation’ and provides the comforting ability to see your actual position on the map. However, using map scales of 1:250,000 and more is completely useless for field-of-view bush navigation. Moreover, it is not possible to calibrate commercial maps electronically as they are not normally orthographic maps in the first place.

This concept has proved impractical and certainly not robust as the exposure of delicate office equipment to heat, dust and vibration shock will inevitably cause equipment failure.

The 2nd generation GPS navigation solution - Track Navigation.

Whilst the 1st generation navigation solution is based upon the "let’s take GPS to the MAP" concept, the 2nd generation solution reverses this concept to “let’s take MAP to the GPS”.

Currently on the market are 2nd generation and ‘map-capable’ GPS receivers that comprise of robust hand-held GPS units and PDA technology with electronic VECTOR maps installed as background base maps.

2nd generation GPS navigation implies "TRACK-NAVIGATION" as opposed to 1st generation "POINT-NAVIGATION".

Provided with accurate and reliable GPS maps, the new map-capable GPS technology (and track navigation) has made it possible to comply with the golden environmental rule of "Please, stay on existing tracks". However, most GPS unit bundled mapping software currently only covers the streets of the main city centers of South Africa (with accuracies of 10 meters and less).

There are a several commercial GPS Mapping products on the market today, and these can provide GPS maps for city streets and main roads of South Africa that are remarkably accurate. The latest innovation is AUTO-ROUTING where the GPS receiver will calculate a route and then tell you (many with audio instructions) when to turn left or right, how far to the next turn off and so on.

For rural and remote Africa it is a completely different story. Current commercial GPS maps have accuracies that vary from 250 meters to 1.4 km because these maps are constructed mainly by tracing road /track lines from available official paper maps, most of which date back to Colonial Africa and which are outdated and sometimes woefully inaccurate. Also used as source material for such maps are tracings from available satellite imagery (15m pixel quality). These often cannot tell the difference between navigable roads or river beds, cut lines or pipelines, and certainly cannot provide information on which roads are mined and those that are safe to travel.

The many dead-end vehicle tracks in the deserts of Namibia (traced from satellite photos, because they are visible on sat-photos) are now displayed on commercial GPS maps as navigable 'gravel roads'. In one alarming case the Huab-river bed (north of the C39), which is the ancient migration route of the desert elephant and the black rhino also displays as a 'gravel road' and now wrongly carries the Namibian district road name 'D2650'. Just as disturbing (even frightening) is to see that the trail to the holy and most sacred mountain destination of the Himba people also displays on commercial GPS maps as a 'gravel road'!

Informed Overlanders know traveling in such places is a definite NO-NO, but how many new travelers and/or people with just a passion for Africa actually know this? These people understandably rely completely on the navigation integrity of their GPS and mapping product which is marketed as suitable for traversing these areas.

The sad case of the Snell couple from the Netherlands serves as a reminder of the need to navigate with nothing but the most accurate maps in remote areas. In May 2003, after being missing for over two weeks the Snells were found in the canyon of the Doros river in Damaraland, Namibia. They had run out of fuel. Herr Snell had died the previous day. This touring couple was well equipped, as on the dash of their 4x4 vehicle was mounted a GPS receiver with the best available 1st and 2nd generation navigational equipment.

2nd generation (map-capable) GPS technology is only as good as the GPS map in its memory. Accuracy and reliability of the GPS map is the key. Without it, your new 2nd generation GPS is not a safe functional unit. This is all the more important in these days of mass GPS usage. GPS systems are no longer the preserve of experts, but are used increasingly by the general public. Already, the GPS system is becoming a standard accessory to your new car.

Attempts to map remote Africa using conventional cartographic techniques (explained above) are clearly not working. It is unsafe and it destroys the Environment. To carry out a proper mapping exercise of remote Africa with the same exacting detail (Cities and main roads in RSA) as a commercial venture, would surely be so expensive as to render the product un-commercial.

The 3rd generation GPS navigation solution - Community mapping.

The only way to map Africa accurately, reliably and environmentally correctly is to put the GPS receiver in the hands of experienced travelers to remote Africa who know conditions at ground zero.

What is needed is an electronic VECTOR map that comprises strictly of GPS recorded/confirmed data. Just as important is to have access to a continuous stream of fresh GPS recorded data to update this map, because the roads of Africa are constantly changing, especially so the actual road conditions and, hence, the rules for driving on them.

Common hand-held GPS units offer the functionality to store both WAYPOINTS and TRACKS. The latter is an electronic recording of the actual ‘spoor’ or ’breadcrumbs’, showing the precise roads and tracks that were traversed by the user. There are enough GPS receivers out there and enough IT skills accompanying the many leisure trips to remote Africa to make community mapping work. To do this one has to mobilize this most willing and able resource, set the standards for field data collection, organize GPS workshops, create a website and internet Forum and maintain a proper data warehouse.

4 years ago the Overland and Off-road Travel Communities of Southern Africa (www.overland.co.za, www.tracks4africa.co.za and others) began to put their GPS systems to good use. During this period over 2 million km of GPS recorded track data and 22,000 waypoints were collected and processed. This provided a huge set of properly warehoused data from many travels into the safe reaches of Africa, that stretches from Cape Point, Angola, Mozambique and as far as Ethiopia, Sudan and Morocco. This data is known as the “T4A data vault”. The data set represents the collective property of hundreds of individual members of T4A, and as such, it cannot be distributed or sold outside of the T4A initiative.

Having been cleaned, consolidated and confirmed, the data set offers 270,000 km of high quality road/track lines and 14,400 descriptive waypoints to the most interesting and remote places in Africa. This data is known as “T4A data” It is spatially averaged from many independent GPS recordings and is very ACCURATE and very RELIABLE. It is the collective navigation experience of many travels to remote Africa. From this data is compiled the electronic VECTOR map tiles known as “T4A Maps”.

T4A Maps (download from www.tracks4africa.co.za) are available in several data formats and also as a base-map for popular GPS models. The maps are actually made up of individual “tiles” and can be loaded onto a GPS receiver separately or as a full set depending on the memory available in the GPS receiver.

If you take T4A data to the road you also take on the responsibility for its enhancement, i.e. improving data quality and expanding the scope of travel.

The accuracy and reliability of the T4A Maps cannot really be questioned because these factors are a standard attribute of the concept and because the quality of the data is guarded by 400+ self appointed 'Quality Control Officers' (some of them perfectionists), otherwise known as the “T4A Data Community”.

Members of this community are the true eco-travelers of Africa (some are fanatic conservationists). Membership is of course, open, free and voluntary. IT Specialists, Accountants, Engineers, Environmental Impact Specialists, Company CEO’s, Medical Specialists, Commercial Tour Operators, 4x4 Clubs, Commercial Hunting Farms, Conservation Agencies, Business Entrepreneurs, Nuclear Scientists from across the globe combined with ordinary folk with a common love and passion for Africa and its beauty are working to ensure that it is and will be enjoyed, and preserved for the next generation.

The T4A Community is the backbone of the 3rd generation navigation concept. Its members make available their own time, resources and assets to properly map and re-map remote destinations in Africa. A conservative estimate of the capital assets (e.g. off road vehicles, recovery gear, accessories, navigation and computer equipment) employed in the T4A mapping machine is R 257 million.

GPS workshops (sponsored by the 4x4 industry and organized by Jan van Graan) are offered to enhance data handling skills and to foster the use of GPS as a vital eco-travel instrument. The last successful T4A GPS workshop was generously sponsored by Toyota SA.

The T4A User network (estimated 3000+) is fast expanding and concept is working. It offers safe and environmentally correct travel to places that would not otherwise be reachable. For the first time it makes traveling in a solitary vehicle in remote Africa a very real possibility as an increasing number of Overland travelers often have little choice or preference to do otherwise.

The T4A concept has reduced vehicle track pollution in the deserts of Namibia. On the Liuwa Plains (West Zambia) annual rains and wildebeest migration remove all evidence of roads and tracks, yet travelers STAY ON THE TRACK visible only on the GPS screen.

T4A data loaded onto the GPS unit allows the categorization of routes and tracks, so that the user can easily distinguish between the “Go”, “No-Go” and “Permit Required” areas. The GPS user is also able to plan the routes in advance and so obtain the necessary permits where required.

However, the concept is far from perfection.

The 3rd generation GPS navigation solution - INFORMATION.

The 3rd generation navigation solution implies there are 4 dimensions of a navigation solution:

  • GPS waypoints offers only a 1-dimensional navigation picture.
  • GPS waypoints and tracks offer a 2-dimensional navigation picture.
  • Geo-features (river, lakes, dams, mountains, contour lines) add the 3rd dimension.
  • INFORMATION is the 4th dimension and the most critical aspect of the concept.

Even with the best and most accurate GPS map available, the question still remains; What INFORMATION is needed so as not to expose oneself, one’s travel companions and the Environment, to unnecessary risk?

Overnight camping at waterholes/fountains of Damaraland (Namibia) is a NO-NO. Mother rhino and baby, having walked 30km in the heat of the desert to drink, are prevented from doing so because tourists have chosen to camp there, perhaps with the innocent (but ill advised) intent on viewing rhino or other wildlife. The rhinos then have to walk another 40km to the next waterhole only to find a similar set of tourists awaiting them. At some point the baby rhino won’t make it to the next waterhole having not been able to keep up with the mother in the driest and harshest of conditions.

The informed overlander is well aware that camping at animal watering points in Kaokoland (Namibia) is a NO-NO. To take another example, Himba cattle have adapted, over the centuries, to feed as far as 35km away from water, returning to drink only every second day when heat and dehydration all but overcomes them.

This return usually occurs at night fall or even later. In such circumstances, during the last 5 km when the scent of water is picked up by the cattle, the thirsty animals often stampede towards the waterhole with potentially lethal implications for any unsuspecting overnight bush campers. A recent case in point; R 30,000 damage to a brand new 4x4 in June 2003. Luckily no one was injured on this occasion.

Members of the Overland Travel Community record GPS data (in accordance with T4A’s “Standards for Field Data Collection”) but also submit trip reports with INFORMATION. GPS navigation data and T4A Maps are hosted on www.tracks4africa.co.za. Trip reports and other valuable information are hosted on www.overland.co.za.

The Overland “Information vault’ is one source of the 4th dimension. Information lives in many wild life publications, leisure magazines, the protocols of Conservation Agencies and in the memory of many discerning travelers to these remote and eco-sensitive areas.

What is needed in order to progress into the 4th dimension is a method of ‘data mining’ and proper data warehousing combined with a means by which this information can be made available in a user-friendly format, i.e. portrayed on suitable GPS technology that will convey this information whilst en route. The small screen of current hand held GPS units is not suitable for meeting this goal and robust PDA/GPS technology with text, graphics and audio prompts is possibly the way things will go. The beginning of what is known as virtual travel.

The 3rd generation GPS navigation solution - A new generation of PAPER MAPS.

GPS systems or PDAs (or whatever clever technological solution comes along next), will never replace the need for a good paper map. A good map is like a good friend. It is there when you need it. It does not need batteries, it does not need starting up and it cannot shut down.

The new generation paper maps must comply with the quality standard “What you see on the paper map is exactly what you see on GPS which is exactly what is happening on ground zero”, meaning:

Paper maps and GPS maps must be compiled from exactly the same high quality data source. Paper maps must be VECTOR based and must be ortho-correct (a Windows CE requirement). Paper maps will not represent a complete road atlas (includes only GPS recorded/confirmed roads and tracks). Paper maps will require a suitable mechanism to ensure continuous and regular updates.

Experimental versions of these paper maps are available only to members of the T4A Data Community. The option of making these new generation maps available to the larger traveling public is one that lies directly in the hands of commercial map-makers.

The 3rd generation GPS navigation solution - The Role Players, the paradigm shift and the road ahead.

The 3rd generation GPS navigation solution was developed and refined by the T4A Data Communities. The concept holds sufficient commercial potential to sustain ongoing T4A mapping operations and possibly much more. However, these Communities are club activities aimed at promoting safe and environmentally conscious travel to remote and eco-sensitive areas. It goes beyond the constitution of these communities to enter into commercial operations.

The way forward rests with the motoring industry (4x4 and leisure vehicles), GPS manufacturers and the commercial map-makers. They must buy into the concept, so as to make available new and exiting innovations that will ensure reasonable profits, ongoing T4A mapping operations, the possibility of an expanded leisure market, the promotion of the joy of sensible travel in remote Africa and most of all, ensuring that justice is done to the Environment.

Maybe it is time for Governments of the SADEC, the SADEC Environmental Program, Wild life Authorities and Conservation Agencies to become key role players...and role models. To develop quality standards for GPS navigation systems that are safe and environmentally correct. Equally important is to formulate a CODE of CONDUCT for traveling in remote and eco-sensitive areas. The latter as a basis for Environmental Educations Programs and GPS Workshops which must transform the many ‘experienced bush travelers’ into ‘fine and informed eco-travelers’.

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