SAE PNT Committee Vice Chair Recognized by ION in 20th Century Navigation Hall of Fame
Posted: March 1, 2023
James Farrell’s work in navigation has helped to guide the field to where it is today.
And his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.
The Institute of Navigation’s (ION) Historian Marvin B. May named Farrell as a 20th Century Navigation Hall of Famer. Farrell’s name appears on a list among the likes of Albert Einstein and Elmer Sperry. Out of the 20 innovators recognized, Farrell is one of only five still living today.
Farrell, who serves as the Committee Vice Chair on SAE International’s Positioning, Navigation and Timing, Committee, feels humbled by the recognition.
“I have to admit I was surprised to see my name there because of the caliber of people that were listed,” he told SAE. “I mean, you’ve got Brad Parkinson, the father of GPS, on there—you’ve got real biggies there. And so, I thought, okay, well, how do I react? And it turns out that I can cite that as an indication that we were very serious about these advancements, and we do want to cooperate with the industry. We want SAE to be part of this for sure because I’m firmly convinced that without that support, this work won’t move forward like it should.”
Farrell has a long history of moving the work forward. Notably, Farrell was an early advocate of inertial navigation in the Kalman filter and making those concepts accessible to industry through his foundational text, Integrated Aircraft Navigation.
“Trying to learn those things, I had to learn it before I could write about it, and the information that was available in those areas at the time, for both Kalman filtering and inertial navigation, was written only for experts,” Farrell said. “The major challenge in trying to put that information together was to focus on what was needed to learn and get away from the things that were not needed. So in putting that book together in the 1970s, I aimed to make it a lot easier for anyone who’s reading that book to avoid the distractions that I had. It was also necessary to add some innovative insights.”
Beyond that 1976 book, Farrell continued to advocate for new technology and share his knowledge across industry, including navigation, simulation, and flight test results (the latter are contained in his 2007 book GNSS Aided Navigation & Tracking). Looking into and explaining these emerging technologies to a broader audience was not without its challenges, or challengers.
Farrell described a conference experience before the existence of GPS when, presenting a radar tracking simulation, he shared a model that would generate a time history of data generated by a simulated software algorithm that could then be fed to an airborne hardware processor emulator.
“Today that’s taken for granted. Everybody’s doing that now. But 43 years ago, it was considered strange, unusual, and unprecedented—so much so that when I was making that presentation, a customer in the audience shouted out, ‘Can you get finished with this? We got other things that we have to do that are more important,’” he said. “So, my presentation was aborted at that point. Later on, I said I respectfully insist that what I’m talking about is right. And of course, it is, and it’s been accepted since then.”
While others may have shied away in the face of such bold resistance, Farrell took it as a cue to keep pushing, noting that advances are not made by just sticking to the status quo.
That’s an attitude he’s brought to his work with SAE International. Farrell’s authored an SAE EDGE report, a publication meant to investigate emerging technology areas. With colleague and Chair of the SAE PNT Committee Bill Woodward, Farrell is looking into air traffic control, and how they may be able to innovate and standardize solutions for navigation in unmanned aerial vehicles.
“I have no doubt in my mind that without standards, you don’t really make things happen,” Farrell said. “What we do, Bill and I, is just try to keep moving ahead and keep making progress, so we will be ready to provide whatever is needed when the time comes.”
Learn more about the PNT Committee on SAE Standards Works.