Galvanising Galileo: EU’s Answer to GPS

11 November 2010 (Last Updated November 11th, 2010 18:30)

Anyone following the progress of the Galileo GNSS programme over the past few years could be forgiven for their dismay. The project has been marred by overruns in its budget and schedule, delays in its development and a perceived decay in final operational capability. But that isn't the whole story, and in any case it kind of misses the point. Guy Richards Explains why.

Galvanising Galileo: EU’s Answer to GPS

Galileo, one of Europe's most ambitious projects, is intended as an EU version of the US Global Positioning System (GPS), albeit with significant improvements. The technology once airborne and circling above our globe should give users within the aerospace, transport and virtually all logistics industries quicker, more reliable location information, within a margin of 1m compared with the current GPS error of several metres.

While this all sounds very helpful, getting the project off the ground has been an ongoing struggle. As recently as early 2007, the EU had still not decided how to pay for the multi-billion euro project, taking until April 2008 to do so, while in June 2009 the European Court of Auditors highlighted governance issues as a major cause of delays in its development.

Then, later that year, it was announced that the number of satellites in the constellation would be cut from 28 to 22, and that the project's €3.4bn budget would be insufficient.

In March 2010 the world then learned that there was only enough money for 18 satellites, providing only 60% capacity and only two of the five main services - the free Open Service and the government-only, encrypted Public Regulated Service -would be operational in 2014, when it's due to go live.

"Accurate data for safe landings will not only increase safety but also capacity and efficiency."

The question is at current capability will Galileo perform? In the airport sector, for instance, planning aircraft routes and landing schedules will still become a lot easier.

Accurate data for safe landings will not only increase safety but also capacity and therefore efficiency, a major buzzword in today's climate.

The questions that remain are how soon and how far will it go?

Ready or not?

This latest blow over what full operational capacity (FOC) would mean going forward sparked something of an outcry. For example, at the time, Paul Verhoef, satellite navigation programme manager at the European Commission, said "It's an illusion to believe we can do this with 18 satellites - one-half of a BMW is not a car", while chairman of the German space agency DLR, Johann-Dietrich Woerner, said, "We need all 30 satellites, including the spares."

Andrew Sage, director of Helios, a consultancy specialising in satellite navigation offers another perspective. As he says, "What's a full service? While it's true that by 2014 Galileo won't have all five services and 30 satellites, it will have IOC [Initial Operating Capacity] with the 18 satellites and two services."

"It found that combined receivers offered significant benefits."

"I would say you might build it anyway and sell it as it is - there are downstream markets in the urban domain for which Galileo's 2014 capability will be of enormous value," Sage said."

"It's important though that Galileo declares a form of FOC by 2014, because that will give the market certainty and confidence," Sage says. "If not, then I fear the market will not have the patience to wait."

Comparing capability

Given the litany of delays with Galileo it's inevitable that people will compare its capability - unfavourably - with GPS. For example, some reports suggest there's no chance of launching the full Galileo constellation in the foreseeable future and that there will therefore be no point in using a Galileo-only receiver.

On this second point Sage says, "That's true but with one exception - the PRS service; with the Open Service I can't conceive of any applications using a Galileo-only receiver anyway. Any market where PRS is likely to be used though will bring with it issues of control and sovereignty," he says, referring to the system's political aim, "so we will see PRS-only receivers. Whether we'll see truly multi-constellation receivers, however, is another matter."

That, he says, makes comparisons with GPS unhelpful. "Galileo is part of the wider satellite navigation 'recipe'," he adds, recalling that Galileo was designed from the outset as an alternative and complement to GPS.

"Also, remember that GPS took decades to come to fruition, and was being used for a long time before it reached its FOC," he says. "Galileo was only first proposed in 1999, which is really not that long when compared to transnational development programmes in other sectors - and the current funding situation has been exacerbated by the economic downturn."

"Technically, GPS and Galileo are comparable although Galileo's signal design and capability are better and more advanced than GPS today," Sage says. "Also, its open design will pave the way for further advances, for example to GPS-3 [the US effort to modernise GPS, with first launch due in 2014]."

"There will be plenty of applications for Galileo, provided the system offers a stable service."

The major difference is one of market confidence, he says. "There are two issues here - the Galileo programme itself and the downstream market - and they are quite separate."

"People are now mature users of GPS, and there are many applications in the urban area that are desperate for more satellites, bandwidth and availability. So while a lot of the news has focused on the Galileo programme itself, there's a growing satellite receiver industry out there aimed at providing combined, multi-constellation solutions," he says. "Galileo and GPS will therefore nearly always be used together, since neither system gives a complete 'picture'."

His view here is backed by an official statement by a US / EU working group that assessed GPS-plus-Galileo receivers compared to single-system receivers. It found that combined receivers offered significant benefits, and in July 2010 said, "The combination of GPS and Galileo services provided noteworthy performance improvements, particularly in partially obscured environments where buildings, trees or terrain block large portions of the sky."

Delving downstream

There's been more good news for the downstream market, with the publication in May 2010 of the updated Galileo Interface Control Document for the Open Service, which provides technical specifications and performance expectations for the system.

This is a welcome development, according to Sage. "It's fired the starting pistol for designing and building receiver chipsets," he says. "If you're looking at this in the context of, say, a mobile phone - something you'd be likely to change in the next two or three years - then this is not something that will concern you yet. But if you're looking at equipment with a longer lifespan, such as a car or train, then it would be worth looking at investing in Galileo receivers. In 15 years' time, you won't want GPS-only."

It's a case of "if you build it they will come". As Sage says, "There will be plenty of applications for Galileo services, provided the system offers a stable and operational service as soon as possible - no matter if the complete mission is not yet achieved."