Where Classification can Make-or-Break



Seemingly simple acts of classification can have enormous consequences.

Last year, James May – a co-presenter with Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear – took a spin in an unusual vehicle developed by the Russians called an Ekranoplan (see the BBC video).

What’s unusual about the Ekranoplan is that it’s a hybrid between a boat and an aircraft, a class of vehicle known as a Ground Effect Vehicle or GEV.

GEVs rely on aerodynamics in combination with the ground effect. ‘Ground’ has to be defined loosely here, because GEVs are mainly confined to water surfaces, these being more consistently flat than most terra firma. That poses a problem for KO: is a GEV to be classified as an aircraft or a boat? Does it matter?

Well, in the scheme of things, it appears that classification can make or break a technology. A previous GEV – the hovercraft – was classified as essentially an aircraft, making it subject to the same stringent regulations applicable to true aircraft. That proved to consign the hovercraft as a public transportation vehicle to the scrap heap (although I made a very comfortable crossing to France on one in the 1980s). Hovercraft are now mainly confined to the domain of hobbyists. But, I suppose we ought to be grateful at least that we don’t need a pilot’s licence to use a hover mower on our lawns.

The Ekranoplan and its ilk on the other hand, have been classified by the International Marine Organization as a ship, and are therefore subject to far less stringent regulations. So hovercraft technology is detained indefinitely whilst other GEVs are released without charge – all through an act of classification.

Thanks to Max Boisot on the Cognitive Edge blog as the source and inspiration for this post.

3 Responses to Where Classification can Make-or-Break

  1. Actually, hovercraft classification depends on where the hovercraft is registered. In many areas, hovercraft are considered to be boats and will have to be registered as such.

    The hovercraft was invented, after all, to reduce the drag from a ship’s hull by raising the hull above the water.

    A pilot’s license is not normally required in most localities, especially for recreational hovercraft.

    If anything, an ekranoplan should be considered to be more like an aircraft because it uses airfoils instead of fans to generate a high pressure air cushion upon which the vehicle travels.

    Most other ground effect vehicles are also considered to be boats for most practical purposes, even though they are quite unlike other watercraft.

    This isn’t the only time such classifications have become confusing, and it won’t be the last.

    I also ponder this from time to time (like now).

    Excellent post!

  2. bbater says:

    Thanks for your informative comment Daniel. I guess I should have made it clear that I was talking in a UK context. Seemingly arbitrary decisions to classify something one way or another often conflict with individual views. I am just concerned that those professionals involved in such decisions are aware that there can be differing points of view.

  3. A nice case indeed. From my more general viewpoint, I would say that such problems are greater when classification is seen as something static. If, instead, we admit than new objects can emerge in the world, and deserve new classes, we can consider whether ekranoplans or hovercrafts are different enough from both aicrafts and boats to deserve a new class. Often, indeed, new phenomena emerge from some “synergism” between pre-existing phenomena [Corning 2002]. A “phylogenetic classification” (see my paper in “KO” 2006) should represent this accurately…

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