Landing a jet on an aircraft carrier is one of the most difficult and dangerous manoeuvres in aviation. If Elizabeth Cannon has her way, pilots will one day be able to land on these unforgivingly short floating runways hands-free.
The University of Calgary geomatics engineering professor is a leading expert in the research and development of satellite navigation tools - including ones that enable pinpoint airplane positioning. It's world-class work for which Dr. Cannon is being awarded a 2002 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship - one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes.
When Dr. Cannon began her work with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in 1984, the network of 27 satellites that now exists - built and operated by the US military - consisted of only a half-dozen satellites. This meant that it was only useable several hours a day, when there were four satellites within view of a particular location.
But for the recent mathematics B.Sc. graduate, these navigational satellites orbiting 20,000 kilometres above the Earth represented a new aspect of the space age - the unparalleled ability to locate ourselves on Earth from space.
"GPS totally captured my imagination. I thought, if I can get involved with this, I don't know how it will impact society, but I knew it was going to in major ways," says Dr. Cannon, who in 2001 was the first female recipient of the Johannes Kepler Award, the world's most prestigious satellite navigation prize.
Today GPS technology has advanced to the point that weekend adventurers can buy off-the-shelf hand-held models for several hundred dollars at the local electronics store.
The enormous popularization of GPS applications owes much to Dr. Cannon's and her colleagues' R&D work: her five GPS-related software packages have been licensed or sub-licensed to more than 4000 organizations worldwide. Applications include a company that has used the software to develop wildlife tracking collars, and GPS software that is rapidly replacing the use of gyroscopes, for pitch determination, onboard ships.
Based on Dr. Cannon's current research, even the car in your driveway may one day be GPS guided.
"One of the real challenges is that GPS is a line-of-sight system. This makes it difficult to use in urban areas. So the question is how can we mitigate its limitations by integrating it with other systems," she says.
Working with the Daimler-Chrysler Corporation, Dr. Cannon is exploring ways of combining GPS with existing, commercially available, inertial navigation systems - sensors inside a vehicle that record its rate of acceleration and direction. Her work is focused on developing algorithms and error modelling that will provide the best mathematical ways for merging the two different types of information provided by the GPS and inertial systems.
"We want to develop a car-based system that would allow it to continuously position the vehicle to centimetre-level accuracy in real-time," says Dr. Cannon, who is also just completing her five-year tenure as the NSERC-Petro-Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (Prairie Region).
While this highly precise positioning is more than what's needed for getting to the corner store, it's the kind of ability that opens whole new realms of possibilities, such as autonomous driving.
"Accuracy is addictive," Dr. Cannon notes. "People start to think, I could do this or that."