11 Dec 2018   |   News

UK faces long, costly journey for go-it-alone global satnav system

The freedom, and perils, of a plan to build a rival to Galileo and the US global positioning system

Galileo satellite in orbit. Photo: ESA, P. Carril

The UK is forging ahead on what experts say will be a complicated, expensive and lengthy journey to create its own global satellite navigation system.

In one of the bitterest rows of the Brexit negotiations, the EU said the UK cannot retain full access to its Galileo satellite programme after Brexit next March. Last month, the UK government officially announced it would be pulling out of the system to concentrate on scoping an alternative system.

Many around the world could only look on in puzzlement. “I’m one of the oldest hands in satellite navigation in Australia, and I’m not terribly excited about this effort. A new system might be interesting, but it’s not necessary,” said Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research. “It would have to bring something radically new to the party, otherwise it’s not worth it.”

Brian Weeden, the director of programme planning at the Secure World Foundation, a US space-policy think tank agreed. “It’s absurd that anyone can look at the history of how long and difficult it was to create systems like [the US global positioning system] GPS, Galileo and Glonass and think you can magically snap your fingers and create your own version,” he said.

But others are sensing opportunity and the chance to make a better system.

Going it alone allows the UK to let loose and design a system built to the specifications of just one country rather than needing to fulfil the requirements of all the EU's member states.

Lessons have been learned from the, at times, torturous Galileo process that could benefit Britain’s effort, some argue.

“Galileo was really held back by the squabbling of various nations which were looking to see their industry represented in contracts,” said Todd Humphreys, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas.

Going it alone is “certainly not viewed in a negative way,” said Graham Peters, chair of UKspace, a trade association. “A shot in the arm might be overstating it, but it’s a good way of keeping key capabilities going in the UK.”

Looking for a signal

Fear and national pride are driving the UK’s response to a potential Galileo shut-out.

The country wanted to keep its access to the military grade signal of the EU's Galileo system, called Public Regulated Service. The EU has said it would allow participation to Galileo on a "third country" basis, but that it would restrict UK control over security-sensitive data.

The British armed forces have access to an encrypted stream on GPS, controlled from the Pentagon in Washington. “At first you ask why is the UK going down this path, when GPS is free and globally available and we’re not going to switch it off anytime soon,” said Humphreys. “But for the Brits this is a project of national pride and a declaration of independence perhaps. Seen this way, and recognising that countries and allies don’t always see eye to eye, a country wishing to project power would want their own global system.”

The UK effort will not be quick to get going. The government expects it will take 18 months for an initial assessment on a new system. The UK Space Agency, which has been given £92 million to conduct feasibility, is now tendering a series of key contracts.

Opinions vary on the timetable for arriving at a fully-fledged system. The managing director of Airbus Defence and Space, Colin Paynther, told a parliamentary committee in May that it would take between three to five years to build a home grown Galileo.

“If the UK had a clear mission and the funding, they could field a system in five years,” said Humphreys.

Others are less optimistic. On top of the technology, the UK government will also need to negotiate congested signal space. “It would be amazing if they sort everything out in under a decade,” said Bleddyn Bowen, space policy expert at Leicester University.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an arm of the United Nations, has already allocated much of the useable radio frequencies to Galileo, GPS, China's BeiDou system and regional navigation systems in India and Japan.

“The ITU is a venue for geopolitical horse-trading,” said Bowen. “The organisation has to make sure small countries get what they need and are not walked over. There’s a lot of diplomatic manoeuvring and that’s going to take a lot of time.”

Meanwhile, regulators around the world are auctioning off spectrum to telecoms companies for new 5G technologies. “We have a big debate here in the US about 5G services that want to use the GPS spectrum. For the UK, it’s going to be a huge negotiation too,” said Weeden.

There are exploratory talks between the UK and Australia, a member of FiveEyes intelligence alliance, about combining on a new global system.

“For putting together something new, it doesn’t add anything unless they do something radical,” said Dempster, who is a professor at the school of electrical engineering and telecommunications at the University of New South Wales. “All global systems are in a 20-30,000 feet orbit range (mid-orbit level). If they were to consider doing something together, maybe it could be something at lower orbit with more accurate signal levels.”

It is hard to detect strong enthusiasm in Australia for teaming up with the UK. “We don’t tend to think very far ahead – you may have noticed how many prime ministers we go through here,” Dempster said.

Perpetual commitment

Galileo, commissioned in 2003 and due to come online in 2020, is full of British expertise. UK engineers make the payloads, which are the brains of the system.

But, despite all this knowhow, there is some doubt over the UK ability to go it alone.

“For its own satnav system, Britain would have to launch around 30 satellites and it doesn’t have these mass manufacturing capabilities,” Bowen said. The bulky satellite bodies for Galileo are mostly assembled in Germany.

“We don’t have launch systems either. We have to buy services from Americans, Europeans, Indians, Russians or the Chinese,” Bowen added.

Starting your own global system “is not something you decide to give a shot to see how it goes. It’s a perpetual commitment,” said Humphreys. “In the US, it costs up to a billion dollars just to maintain our system every year.”

The UK government has declined to put a figure on an alternative system, but its estimated cost is £3 billion to £5 billion.

Spending overruns on large space infrastructure are almost unavoidable. The original budget for Galileo, covering satellites, launches, and building ground stations, was €3 billion. It will now cost more than three times that. A further €9.7 billion, covering Galileo and a smaller system called Egnos, is promised from 2021 to 2027.

While pricey, Galileo, which promises eventual real-time positioning down to a metre or less, is well regarded. When completed, it will help guide aircraft, ships and emergency services.

“The satellites themselves were very well designed in the end. I track them and they’re superior to GPS,” Humphreys said. The US is in talks with the EU on getting access to Galileo's high precision signal for security use as a back-up for its own system.

Russia's Glonass system has also been costly, soaking up fully one-third of the country’s federal space agency budget, but with less impressive results. “And due to Russia's weak economy, Glonass was for more than a decade only partially operational,” said Humphreys.

It came back to full operation in 2011, but still only has 24 satellites, compared to GPS's 31. “It’s been tough, tough, tough for them to keep their constellation up there; it’s been hobbling along,” Humphreys added.

Weeden says he does not know anyone who trusts the Glonass system. “The Russians put a lot of effort into bringing it back to speed but the system started giving bad timing data. The thing with a satnav is, it has to be right all the time; these systems are built on trust,” he said.

Keeping key skills

Companies working on Galileo in the UK have been advised to transfer work out of the country after March next year. A British-built alternative is seen as a way to keep key skills at home.  

Airbus has relocated 80 jobs from Britain to France and Germany to enable work on the project to be completed. “The EU will, I imagine, be very eager to attract more people to the continent,” Bowen said.

There are anecdotes about lost work. Spain’s GMV, for example, is taking over a contract that the UK was due to lead. “Having been pushed out of some of the most recent procurements, it’d be difficult to get back into leadership positions,” said Peters.

Keep talking

Some argue that the cheapest, and most sensible, course is to keep negotiating to stay in a system that has already swallowed £1.2 billion of UK investment.

Although the UK science minister, Sam Gyimah resigned saying the Galileo row was a foretaste of a post-Brexit UK being consistently “hammered” in negotiations with the EU, others believe talks are retrievable.

The UK would be allowed to use Galileo’s military signals with a security agreement, but had insisted it needed oversight of the secure technology and its development to have confidence in it.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll be interested again in negotiating to get in,” said Bowen. “This government can’t think long term, mainly because of Article 50.” Money earmarked for a global system would be better spent elsewhere, Bowen argues. A UK-only system “will be a lot of money spent on triplicating space infrastructure we already have access to.”

“There’s better and lower hanging fruit in our space sector; more affordable areas where government spending could have a bigger impact,” he said. “There are clear gaps in the UK military. The battlefield intelligence from space has to come from UK allies, for example. You could also invest in space situational awareness to detect things that travel in space orbit.”

“There are more worthy causes than a vanity programme designed to save face,” Bowen said.

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