Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Avionics System: Galileo: Commercializing Satnav

By Walter Shawlee 2 | August 1, 2002
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Politics represents a powerful force in the design world. It manifests itself in everything from emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) to water purity standards to satellite navigation. A vivid example is Europe’s Galileo satellite positioning system, which was officially launched in March 2002.

Despite pressure from the U.S. Department of State–including a December letter from U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to all 15 European Union (EU) defense ministers, arguing against deploying Galileo–the EU made its decision to fund and deploy the satellite network. Germany’s pivotal change from opposition to support of the program was based on its view that "considerable political, strategic and economic importance" exists for Europe to have its own satnav system. This gave the EU ministers the green light to proceed with Galileo.

Responding to U.S. pressure for the EU not to have its own satnav system, French President Jacques Chirac said in mid-2001 to the International Herald Tribune, "Failure to proceed with Galileo would eventually turn the EU into an industrial and economic vassal of the United States." Chirac echoes the views of many other national leaders, who are wary of the U.S. monopoly on satellite navigation and its local control of a global resource.

Perhaps a force greater than politics is economics. The spaceborne navigation system’s initial phase reportedly will cost 3.2 billion Euros ($3 billion) to field, and with initial funding committed, work on the system has begun in earnest after many years of delays.

Unlike GPS, a U.S. military system that does not guarantee complete and unrestricted availability, Galileo is a full-time civil system, funded and designed by the EU members. After initial fielding, funding for the system’s operation and maintenance will be based on licensing and subscription fees. This covers additional system features and greater accuracy (less than 1 meter [3.3 feet] under all environmental conditions), and it assures 100 percent availability to users that require it, such as aviation and military users. The basic service is free, but enhanced features come with a fee (presumably built into the hardware license or via direct subscription charges).

The fees may seem to be unattractive at first, but funding for the GPS system is an ongoing, costly process. Therefore, the system’s continuity is not certain, despite U.S. government assurances to the contrary.

Look, for example, at Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS). It has collapsed to only seven satellites, with improvements and further launches uncertain, although three replacement spacecraft were launched last year. It’s a stark reminder that space-based systems have short life spans and face increasing launch and construction costs.

Politics aside, economic reality determines a satellite network’s future, much like the ill-fated Iridium satellite phone network. (Interestingly, Iridium’s costs to date are almost twice those of the proposed Galileo network.)

During the height of the space race, in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson once was asked, "What makes the rockets go up?" His reply: "Funding makes rockets go up."

Run by the European Space Agency (ESA), Galileo’s space component is expected to be in service by 2008. It will provide global coverage with 30 core satellites (workable with 24). Galileo eventually will expand to 40 satellites, all in an orbit that is 12,640 miles (20,000 km) above the Earth.

The European system is designed to offer layered capability to users with and without fees and can be fully interoperable with GPS hardware, although this is not required. Like GPS, Galileo will be an L-band system, with the channel frequencies still to be determined by international radio allocation agreements. The system will have a ground-based network for system support and control. And it will include a "flag" in the data stream for loss of system accuracy, to warn users of degraded operation–a feature GPS does not have, which is especially problematic for aviation navigation.

Galileo also will offer improved arctic/polar navigation. By 2008, satnav receiver manufacturers will be able to add this capability to their products, as Galileo provides an opportunity to refresh their hardware.

Galileo is particularly important to the aviation industry. GPS has had an implicit air of uncertainty that precludes many critical aircraft uses, especially advanced, instrument landing procedures. A second, independent system with a performance flag and assured uptime provides a critical alternate source of air navigation. Without Galileo or a system like it, satnav technology will fail to meet the long-established test of two independent sources of navigation for instrument flight rule (IFR) operations.

Space is a difficult, and costly, environment in which to operate, as I mentioned in my February 2002 column (page 47). We remember the Apollo moon landings, but that was 40 years ago, and we have not made a serious manned effort to explore space since then.

Capitalism at its Best

Commercialization is essential to justify and recover the costs of space systems, and we should welcome this change. Interestingly, Russia, with its fee-for-space-flight program (capitalism at its best), has taken the first step in commercializing space. Galileo is taking a second step for everyone.

You can see details on the Galileo program online at

Walter Shawlee 2 may be reached by e-mail at

Galileo Levels of Service

Level One

The first level provides a basic service, free of charge, for applications intended for the public, in particular leisure activities, such as cycling, hiking and boating.

Level Two

The second level introduces a subscription service, with restricted access for commercial and professional applications needing superior performance levels and a guarantee of service.

Level Three

The third level provides a very restricted, very high-level subscription service for applications that must not suffer any interruption or disturbance for reasons of security.

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