GPS-less Navigation: A Study in Intelligent Design

This paper presents my personal study of a potential – design – engineering and prototyping of a GPS-like, but GPS-less navigational system based on the navigational capabilities we see in nature in the form of migratory animals of a variety of sorts – birds, fish, turtles, whales, butterflies …

And right up front I would like to acknowledge and thank the Intelligent Design (ID) movement  – in particular the Discovery Institute , the ID blog Uncommon Descent, and the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), for much informative reporting of science over the years that was a major inspiration for this study.


The paper is divided into three main parts; the first being brief descriptions of the migratory/navigational capabilities of various animals, the second part being brief descriptions of some human designed navigational systems and a third part describes a methodology for achieving the desired end product.

I.  Natural/Animal Navigational Capabilities.


The past two Octobers have found us along the shores of the St. Lawrence Seaway just east of Quebec City, Canada.  While there we witnessed the annual migration of tens of thousands of Snow Geese as they stopped along the way from the Arctic regions to Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere south. Later on, that same trip, we witnessed a similar migration at Lake Champlain NY. This migratory phenomenon, along with  memories of my professional past as a software developer involved with a tracking intense military training system called TACTS/ACMI, has kindled an interest in how animals accomplish these amazing feats of migration and navigation, and how can we humans learn and benefit from the designs contained in these animals.


Animals … how do they do it?

Cryptochrome protein helps birds navigate via magnetic field

From the report: “ … Each year, the Arctic Tern travels over 40,000 miles, migrating nearly from pole to pole and back again. Other birds make similar (though shorter) journeys in search of warmer climes. How do these birds manage to traverse such great distances when we need a map just to make our way to the next town over?

Researchers have established that birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field and use it to orient themselves. How this internal compass works, though, remains poorly understood.   … “

Researchers Identify Protein Tied To Avian Navigation Using Earth Magnetic Field

From the report: … Researchers have found a protein that is responsible for the navigation ability of birds. The protein helps the birds in sensing the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. …


Magnetism guides salmon migration, research suggests

From the report: “…One of the world’s great migration mysteries – how salmon find their way home from the distant ocean – may have been solved.

Researchers studying the movement of sockeye salmon from British Columbia’s Fraser River say the fish are imprinted with a magnetic map when they are juveniles. And they later use that map as adults to read the Earth’s geomagnetic field, which guides them back from the North Pacific to the river mouth … “


Loggerhead Turtle Migration Follows Magnetic Map

From the report: “ … The extreme vulnerability of loggerhead hatchlings to predators and the whims of wild oceans begs the question: How do any of these animals survive their marathon migrations?

Surprising new answers come from a research team led by Kenneth Lohmann, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is partially funded by the National Science Foundation. According to the team’s latest findings, which were published in two recent companion papers, loggerhead turtles are born with an inherited “magnetic map.”

The Earth’s magnetic field varies across the globe; slightly different fields exist in different geographic regions. As they encounter magnetic fields at specific locations along the migratory route, the turtles’ magnetic map — a series of inherited instructions — tell young turtles which way to go. The magnetic map allows young turtles, as Lohmann puts it, to use these different fields as “road signs in the open sea.” Differences in magnetic fields at different locations cause the turtles to change swimming directions so that they stay on course along their migratory pathway … “



How do monarch butterflies migrate so far? Hint, it’s in their genes.

From the report: “ …The researchers carried out genome sequences on 92 monarch butterflies from around the world including non-migratory ones as well as on nine butterflies from closely related species. To study the genetic basis for migration, they compared the genetic blueprint of migratory monarchs to those that do not migrate.

“One gene really stood out from everything else in the genome,” Kronforst said. … “



Amazing Navigation Skills Seen in Humpback Whales

From the report: “ …It remains a mystery how these whales are capable of such exceptional precision. For instance, buoys along their routes showed that highly variable sea currents were capable of significantly deflecting their headings.

Animals are known to figure out direction over long distances from the Earth’s magnetic field or the direction of the sun. For instance, researchers of tiger sharks and thresher sharks recently said cues from Earth’s magnetic fields may what enables those sharks to orient themselves and travel spot-on toward a far target.

In the case of the humpback whales, however, magnetic cues by themselves might not help, as the Earth’s magnetic field varied widely along each whale’s voyage, with magnetic north changing by as much as 12 percent and as little as 0.5 percent across these journeys. Similarly, the sun alone could not explain the whales’ success. Humpbacks from the same area were found to follow similar headings despite seeing the sun in different positions in the sky, and they also followed different headings despite seeing the sun in similar positions.

“Although we saw no clear relationship between solar and magnetic directional cues and whale headings, it is entirely possible that they are using both the sun and magnetic field in a coupled system of orientation,” Horton said. … “

How Whales Work

From the report: “ … Transmitters have shown that some whale species travel much greater distances than scientists previously estimated. Researchers have tracked humpback whales traveling thousands of miles in only a few weeks, swimming from high northern latitudes to equatorial latitudes and back again. Male sperm whales seem to be solitary wanderers, traveling from ocean to ocean with no particular pattern. A single sperm whale might easily swim around the entire Earth in its 70-year lifetime. … “



Some Sharks Take Aim and Go Miles for a Meal

From the report: “ … Tiger sharks’ journeys were particularly interesting, because they swam across deep water at night, indicating they were not using their vision for navigation. Smells or sounds possibly provided cues, but given the long distances over which the sharks traveled, those senses were unlikely to be adequate.

It’s possible the sharks are sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field and use this sense to orient themselves for long journeys, Papastamatiou said. … “


Animal Magnetism Comes to Light

From the report:

” … The only global force available to make long-distance migration possible for sea creatures is the Earth’s magnetic field — something humans cannot sense. A compass can point a hiker north, but it cannot tell her the intensity of the field at any given point. A map can tell her companion where he is, but cannot tell him which bearing to take. Both tools are necessary, and both are available to many animals with input from the magnetic field.

At long last, Chinese investigators recently reported in Nature Materials the putative discovery of the physical basis of the magnetic sense in animals: “A Magnetic Protein Biocompass.” If their findings are correct, the capability resides in a rod-shaped complex of iron-rich proteins inside particular cells. The abstract explains: …”


It has been known for years now that the magnetic fields surrounding and enveloping the earth provide protection from the destructive and deadly radiation coming from space, primarily from the sun. Without the protection of those fields, life on earth would be impossible. Yet those same fields allow a “good” type of radiation to filter down to the earth which is necessary for life. These “good” rays enable the photosynthesis process in plants, and thus food for the vast array of animal life including you and me and that delicious steak on our plate. 

As shown above, it seems also that a compelling case is being made that certain types of animals can interface with and productively utilize the magnetic fields that surround the earth.


And Now We Humans … how do we do it?

II. Human Developed Navigational Systems.


TACTS/ACMI (Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System/Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation) is a system I worked on for many years. The system, in its early versions, tracked fast and maneuvering fighter jets by interrogating each aircraft with a set of four ranging tones (frequencies). These tones received at the aircraft were then re-transmitted to surveyed ground receivers and then passed on to a master station. At the master station, the aircraft position in x/y/z was computed based on the surveyed positions of the ground stations, and the arrival of the four ranging frequencies. In other words, the distance from the aircraft to each of the receiving ground station was measured and thus the position is made known.

The key point here is that the aircraft is maneuvering in the presence of a well understood radio frequency spectrum, and is interfacing directly with that spectrum thus providing real-time navigational data.


Another navigational system developed by humans is the Global Positioning System (GPS). By now most of us are familiar with GPS, and many of us carry a GPS receiver in our pocket smart phone. The TACTS/ACMI system I briefly described above eventually transitioned to GPS as its positioning system. The concepts are very similar, but with GPS, the only dependency on ground stations is to relay aircraft data to a master site for viewing and recording.


Here is another depiction of a joint military operation being conducted using GPS to position a variety of sea-land-air participants.

What these systems seem to have in common; the salmon and turtles – the birds and butterflies – the whales and sharks – TACTS/ACMI – GPS … is they are all bathed in an electro-magnetic spectrum and are in communication in some fashion with that spectrum and are deriving useful real-time navigational capabilities as a result.

Our challenge – the challenge of this study – is to understand how the animals accomplish this interface, and translate that into navigational capabilities useful to humans for a variety of uses.

III. Proposed Methodology for Developing a GPS-less Navigational Capability

Now that we have taken a brief tour of various natural and human navigational systems, we need a Systems Engineering approach to bridge to the next step … a navigational system I can carry around in my smart phone, but with no GPS satellites required … only the earths naturally occurring magnetic fields. Let’s call it the Turtle 1.0, or the Salmon 1.0, or Tern 1.0 … Actually I prefer the Tern 1.0 as in “tern right at the next corner.”

1.  Establishing the viability of the earth’s magnetic fields as a tracking co-ordinate system

This must be the first order of business. Do the earth’s magnetic fields offer the stability and accuracy such that an Earth Centered/Earth Fixed (ECEF) type of coordinate system can be established?  Has this question already been answered by other scientific/engineering disciplines such as petroleum exploration and mapping?

Whatever mechanisms the animals use in their worldwide navigational systems, they seem more than adequate to get them to a pre-determined mouth of a particular river – are there limits as to the dynamics of these animals such as velocity and acceleration? In other words, can this system support real-time navigation of fast moving objects such as automobiles or jet fighter aircraft?

What are the expected accuracies of such a tracking system in terms of x/y/z position, velocities and accelerations?

2.  Establishing the software required to interface with the magnetic fields

Assuming a positive conclusion to III-1 above, what software will be required to translate our current real-time Tern 1.0 position to an ECEF point in space?

Are there commercially available software packages that can be used as is, or modified, to produce the ECEF position?

How do we blend an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) with the Tern 1.0 in order to produce a complete Time Space Position Information (TSPI) picture of the real-time activities of the tracked object?

IV. Potential Application & Market for a GPS-less Navigational Capability

If a Tern 1.0 navigation system as described in these pages is viable, then it would be immune to jamming  (how do you jam the earth’s magnetic fields?).

Targeted end-products of the technology described in this document would most likely be in the military realm. Of interest is that the studies cited in Animal Magnetism Comes to Light come from China. Could it be that the Chinese are studying this navigation phenomena with military applications in mind, perhaps similar to that proposed here.

Commercial applications such as in smart phones are also a potential market.

V. Am I Late to This Party?

As it turns out – yes I am late to the party. Inquiries I have made to contacts in the industry reveal that extensive work is underway to mimic these amazing animal designs and apply them to human use.  This does not surprise me in the least, but on a personal note, I’ll have to postpone that house in the Bahamas, the yacht and the Lamborghini.

VI. Conclusion

In this paper I have followed the long trail of investigators who see design in many of the natural things around us, in this case animal navigation and migration. I have coupled this inference to design with many years of personal experience in human developed systems that are in many ways analogous to the systems used by animals.  A few names for this type of investigation are Systems Biology, Biomimicry and others.

I see actual design in these animal capabilities, and not any illusions or appearances of design that many evolutionary biologists tell me I should be seeing – I see real and intelligent design. And in recent inquiries I have found that researchers also see these designs and are validating these ideas in university and corporate laboratories, and are on the path to building useful intelligently designed systems for human use.


Don Johnson – January 2016


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