Galileo sees Europe reach for the stars

Galileo is Europe’s answer to the Global Positioning System (GPS), the US’s satellite network that so much of our continent’s navigational technology relies on. The €5 billion project suffered a stuttering start last month, but hopes are high that Europe’s satellite ambitions will eventually offer a more precise system for commercial and civilian users around the world.

An independent satellite-navigation infrastructure

Galileo won’t be the first Europe-based global navigation satellite system (GNSS). The GLONASS network, run by Russia, is currently the only viable alternative to GPS. So with just one main GNSS, which has been adapted for civilian use from its original military mission, the world has no viable backup if something goes wrong. As Oxford Economics pointed out in a 2012 study for the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC):

“The UK and the rest of Europe is currently reliant on the American GPS system, with no viable alternative if that system faced a security breach, or worse still, if the system was to become inaccessible even for just a few moments. The reliance of users on GPS is spread across many key industries that have become central to the UK economy and on which our quality of life, health and safety depend. It is against this backdrop that the EU is developing an independent satellite-navigation infrastructure to guarantee the provision of services.”

Show me the money

With its own sat-nav system in place, Europe won’t just be guaranteeing services, it will also be improving the quality of the service and reaching areas that GPS doesn’t cover. The STFC estimates that the 30-satellite-strong system will be worth £18bn to the UK economy alone by 2025 because of benefits like shorter journey times, more direct journeys, monitoring of waste disposal and transport safety improvements. In fact, the EU estimates the market size of GNSS products to reach €244 billion by 2020, up €100 billion in 10 years. And, of course, the project itself has also contributed to the European economy, with contractors like Thales Group and Arianespace (France) and OHB System (Germany) taking on hundreds of millions of euros worth of contracts to build and launch Galileo.

The obvious winners for an improved sat-nav system are industries like mobile phones, in-car navigation and logistics, but GNSS is actually used in a much wider range of services, including financial transactions, electronic trading, power-grid synchronisation and air-traffic management. The European Commission estimates that six to seven per cent of Europe’s GDP in 2009 – around €800 billion – relied on satellite-navigation signals from GPS and this figure is only going to increase as technology becomes ever-more prevalent.

I know exactly where I am…

That makes an improved service in Europe all the more necessary – and Galileo will be a big improvement. Satellite-navigation works by timing signals sent down by the satellites, which makes having an accurate timepiece a must. Galileo uses passive hydrogen masers, which are among the world’s most accurate atomic clocks. The system will therefore be able to locate a user (human or electronic) within a metre. By contrast, GPS signals can be out by as much as 10 metres.

Galileo’s satellites are also going to be orbiting at a higher altitude than GPS ones, giving more coverage in remote areas because each one ‘sees’ a wider region. Even in the city, satellites can have trouble locating you, but more satellites in the sky means more accuracy on the ground.

“The greatest benefit of adding a new satellite constellation globally is to provide more accurate positioning in an outdoor setting,” says Mark Hung, VP of Wireless Research at Gartner. “Especially in densely populated regions where urban canyons are common, the availability of multiple satellite systems is useful for the mobile consumer to get more accurate location data.”

Two sat systems are better than one

Although initially the US wasn’t very happy about Europe launching its own sat-nav system, the pair has now decided to get along and reap the benefits of cooperation between GPS and Galileo. The GPS-Galileo Agreement in 2004 established four working groups for cooperation on radio frequency, trade and civil applications, design and development of new systems and security issues.

Cooperation between the two global powers will mean better service for customers everywhere, and it also gives both a system to fall back on if their own falls prey to hackers or technical difficulties.

Getting the system off the ground is not going to be easy – the European Space Agency is currently investigating fixes after two of the satellites launched last month ended up in the wrong orbits. But once it’s on its feet, Galileo will offer new opportunities for industry and smarter, more accurate applications for consumers.

Image: European GNSS Agency Facebook page

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