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Australia Is Moving Itself 1.8 Meters North on Maps

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

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Time to update your maps—Australia’s moving.

Since 1994, when the country last updated its coordinates, Australia has drifted 1.5 meters north (about 5 feet). In an effort to stay ahead of the Earth’s tectonic plates, the country is moving itself 1.8 meters north (about 6 feet).

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The shift will future proof the continent as it prepares for more autonomous vehicles, from farm tractors to cars.

Australia is drifting north, necessitating a change in its coordinate system.

While a few feet here or there is within the limits of accuracy for many GPS systems, future systems will be accurate to within inches. Here’s Chris Foxx, reporting for BBC News:

“If you want to start using driverless cars, accurate map information is fundamental,” said [project head Dan] Jaksa.

“We have tractors in Australia starting to go around farms without a driver, and if the information about the farm doesn’t line up with the co-ordinates coming out of the navigation system there will be problems.”

Australia, like most regions, has its own coordinate system, also known as a geodetic datum. There are the several global coordinate systems that are perfectly serviceable, but local versions do a better job at minimizing the distortion occurs when transferring the true shape of the Earth onto a flat coordinate plane.

Because the Earth isn’t a perfect sphere, no datum is perfect. But by limiting the amount of the Earth’s surface that needs to be pulled and stretched when flattened, datums that cover smaller areas can more closely approximate the real thing.

Australia’s new datum is expected to align with reality sometime in 2020.

Image credit: Reto Stöckl/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center