Galileo: a fix on the future
Written by: Richard Lambley | Published:

Advanced navigation satellites will support a mass of new and improved applications on land, sea and in the air. Richard Lambley reports

Since the beginning of last month, rules require all new cars and light vans sold in Europe to be equipped for eCall – a free service which will automatically summon help in the event of a serious collision. Making use of Europe’s growing Galileo constellation of navigation satellites, eCall is predicted to speed up the emergency response by as much as 40 per cent in urban areas and 50 per cent in the countryside.

If a crash occurs, sensors in the vehicle trigger the on-board eCall module, which promptly reports its exact location and other details to the appropriate public service emergency centre. It does this even if the vehicle’s occupants are unable to act for themselves. In addition, it opens a voice channel to the emergency operator via the pan-European emergency telephone number, 112. By saving valuable time in mounting a rescue, eCall is forecast to reduce the number of fatalities by at least four per cent and severe injuries by six per cent. In the UK, the value of a prevented road fatality is put by the Department for Transport at an average of £1.8m (at 2016 prices) – against which the cost of an eCall module, at less than £100 initially, looks modest.

A civilian project

eCall is just one of many applications to be delivered over the coming years through the Galileo satellites as part of Europe’s Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) programme. Unlike other GNSS programmes, such as the US Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s GLONASS and China’s BeiDou, which are all under military control, Galileo, uniquely, is a civilian project, conceived for the benefit of the peoples and economy of Europe.

And that benefit is forecast to be immense. With the growth of fleet management applications, precision timing applications, navigation services and other location-aware services, our economy is already deeply reliant on GNSS technology. A report last year for the UK government’s innovation agency valued the economic benefits to the UK of GNSS at £6.7bn yearly – and put the likely damage resulting from a five-day interruption of GNSS at £5.2bn.

In the years to come, the advent of 5G wireless, automated driving, automated agriculture, unmanned aircraft, smart cities and the Internet of Things will undoubtedly lead to rapid proliferation and diversification of these added-value features. A market report from the European GNSS Agency (GSA), which manages the Galileo project, predicts that annual revenues from these sources will hit €195bn in 2025.

Already, more than half of the smartphone apps in the Android and Apple stores make use of the user’s location in some way. To the general public, the most familiar GNSS functions are free position-finding and the mapping and navigation services which depend on it. Galileo supports these through its Open Service, available to anyone equipped with a suitable smartphone or vehicle navigation device – Galileo is not yet supported by every device, because it entered the market in 2016, and as devices can last for 10 years before needing to be replaced, it takes a while for new features to be universally adopted.

Alongside the Open Service, Galileo provides a so-called Public Regulated Service, which is restricted to government-authorised users in each country. Its coverage, however, will be worldwide. With its improved resistance to interference and other features, it is designed to provide highly reliable positioning for users such as police and rescue services.

A further offering was to be the Commercial Service, an encrypted signal to provide paying subscribers with an additional navigation signal and enhanced performance – potentially delivering a positioning accuracy as fine as one centimetre. But a decision has been made this year to reconfigure this capability as a freely available High Accuracy service offering accuracy in the 20-50cm range. The GSA has begun the process of implementing this revised service and it is expected to be operational around 2020. An encrypted augmentation signal adds a further improvement in performance.

Entering service

When completed, the Galileo constellation will comprise 24 operational satellites plus six in-orbit spares, all circling the planet in three orbital planes angled at 56 degrees to the Equator. So far, 14 satellites are operational and a further six are under test; of these, four are expected to be usable by this summer. The satellites are supported from the ground by two Galileo Control Centres located within Europe and a global network of Sensor Stations.

Commissioning is due to be completed in 2020, but some services, including the Open Service, were declared available for use in December 2016. “What the Initial Services mean is that you can use the services, but you get best performance when using them in combination with other GNSS constellations,” explains Justyna Redelkiewicz-Musiał of the GSA in Prague. “Once Galileo reaches full operational capability, the number of available satellites will increase, so the coverage will be continuous throughout the day and night, and with a sufficient number of satellites to use Galileo only or achieve better performances in multi-constellation.

“To establish a position, you need a minimum of four satellites in direct view. When you are navigating through the city, some parts of the sky are obstructed by buildings or trees. With GPS only, it would be difficult to have continuous operation with good level of accuracy. The Galileo satellites are fully interoperable with GPS – so you can even establish your position by having two GPS satellites and two Galileo satellites. This increases significantly the availability of GNSS in difficult conditions.”

Coverage of the Galileo service will be worldwide, enabling aircraft and shipping to employ it on intercontinental routes.

Enhancing accuracy

A novel feature of Galileo is its use of dual frequencies to broadcast the Open Service, in the lower L-band (around 1190MHz) as well as in the upper L band (around 1575MHz), the band used by existing GNSS services. Their passage through the atmosphere delays and deflects the two frequencies differently – and by comparing the signals, the receiver can partially compensate for these distortions, delivering a more accurate fix. Dual signals will also be provided by the so-called ‘modernised’ version of GPS, via the GPS III satellites to be launched from this year onwards.

Last year the first chipset able to process these dual navigation signals appeared in the market. Equipped with such chips, smartphone and vehicle receivers can be expected to attain an accuracy better than one metre. “Based on the users’ feedback we have to share that we are really very happy with the quality of the Galileo signal,” comments Redelkiewicz-Musiał. “The performance is well recognised by the GNSS industry. Today all the major smartphone brands have already implemented Galileo and now we are also working with car manufacturers and other industry players in all application areas.”

But more is to come, she continues. “An interesting innovation that is going to be implemented in Galileo signal is the so-called Open Service Navigation Message Authentication. This feature is being implemented now and we are expecting next year to start testing it with the chipset manufacturers.”

While this authentication feature will not bring the same level of security that the Public Regulated Service will deliver, she expects it to be adequate for many common applications. “For example, if you have to pay for parking based on your location, or pay for the highway, and you want to spoof your location because you want to avoid payment, this will be detected. This level of authentication is also interesting for location-based gaming.”

Developing on three fronts

Many uses envisaged for the new generation of navigation satellites are about improving on something that we can do already. But now the Internet of Things promises to surround us with billions of connected devices. We shall find ourselves using autonomous vehicles, we shall want augmented reality in three-dimensional space and we shall simply want to know where things are. In all of this, the accuracy and performance of our radio-positioning facility will be critically important.

According to Redelkiewicz-Musiał, developments in location technology are currently heading in three main directions. “The first one is ubiquity,” she says. “Today GNSS is the main source of location information outside, while Wi-Fi and other sensors are used to localise objects and people inside. It is important, however, to have a seamless switch from outdoor to indoor, so that no matter where you are, you can be localised with a similar performance level. Galileo is showing good performance in difficult environments, to guide users from outside up to the doorstep.”

The second front, she continues, is automation. “For drones, robots and autonomous cars, as well as for any other type of safety-critical applications, the accuracy must be really good. Here we are speaking about 10-20cm. This is also where the innovations of Galileo will play a role. The dual-frequency Open Service plus the High Accuracy service of Galileo will play an important role in these future solutions. Already today we are investing in R&D in optimising location performance for automated systems thanks to the differentiators of Galileo.

“And the third dimension of change that we observe is security. Because everything is connected today, location becomes an asset in terms of privacy of data. Location systems must be robust and secure, so that on the one hand it keeps the data [with] the user and on the other hand also resists spoofing attacks and jamming attacks. This is also where Galileo provides a solution, because it is the only constellation that will provide the Open Service Navigation Message Authentication.

“We have currently published a call for proposals of the total value of €6m to fund projects that will address these three challenges in the Internet of Things area. The call is open right now and applications can be sent to the GSA until mid-July.”

Towards a cut-off date

But while Galileo’s free services will continue to be available to all comers, it remains to be seen what UK participation in the project will be possible after withdrawal from the European Union. So far, the signs are that the UK’s substantial contribution to the project (some £1.2bn since 2000) will not be enough to secure its continued involvement. In January, for example, the European Commission announced that a back-up security monitoring centre, due to be installed at Swanwick in Hampshire, will instead be established in Spain, one of the remaining 27 member states.

Likewise, the UK stands to lose access to the Galileo Public Regulated Service, which the security monitoring centres will support. This will deprive government-authorised users such as civil protection services, customs officers and the police of a robust, encrypted positioning service which is designed to provide enhanced performance and continuity of service during emergency or crisis situations.

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