Galileo: Are We There Yet?

September 28, 2015  - By
Europe’s ninth and tenth Galileo satellites being fueled by technicians in protective SCAPE suits within the Guiana Space Centre’s 3SB preparation building on 24 August. This left them ready to be attached to their launcher upper stage in preparation for launch. (Photo:ESA)

Europe’s ninth and tenth Galileo satellites being fueled by technicians in protective SCAPE suits within the Guiana Space Centre’s 3SB preparation building on Aug. 24. (Photo:ESA)

It has been a good late summer for the European Galileo programme. The latest launch on the night of 10 and 11 September has got the number of orbiting satellites in the EU’s GNSS constellation into double figures at last, and one-third of the way towards the ultimate target of 30.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) press releases around the launch were positively euphoric, and there were many pictures of smiling ESA launch teams. And so there should be. The two new satellites (the fifth and sixth fully operational capability (FOC) versions named Alba and Oriana) will now inch their way towards their operational orbits and will soon be joined by two more satellites to be launched in December.

However, as we already know, one of the in-orbit validation (IOV) satellites (Sif) is not very well, having suffered a power failure in late May, and the first two FOC satellites (Doresa and Milena) ended up in the wrong orbit. At the considerable expense of a significant part of their fuel payloads, these two craft are now established in a more useful orbit and are the current subject of testing to determine the exact contribution they can make to the Galileo services.

The Commission and ESA are convinced that the outcome will be positive, with Doresa and Milena able to contribute to the network — or at least not degrade the network’s navigation performance. A final decision on if and/or how these two satellites integrate into the system will be made sometime next year.

In any case, they will be used for the provision of Galileo’s Search and Rescue services. And they are also to be made available for scientific research. One possible science area that has been discussed is to ‘repurpose’ the satellites to measure the slow down of time due to the Earth’s gravitational field as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity.

However, more worryingly, there are rumours of various glitches and performance issues with other in-orbit members of the constellation. Hopefully, they are just rumours; only time will tell.

Position Paper

Not surprisingly, those wanting to use the system are getting a tad frustrated. On Sept. 1, Galileo Services, a non-profit organisation involving 180 members including most of the active players in the EU GNSS industry, published a position paper entitled “Europe Must Succeed in the Global Navigation Market Race.”

The organisation’s aim is to foster an end-to-end vision of the Galileo system that can fully respond to user and market needs. The paper looks at the options to strengthen the competitiveness of the European GNSS downstream sector in the global market and calls for better coordination between the public and private sectors to develop new technologies, applications, services and industries in Europe as a key factor for success.

In particular, the paper stresses the necessity to urgently establish a European strategic plan to enhance Europe’s GNSS downstream industry’s competitiveness and to foster the uptake of the European GNSS, Galileo and the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS), with the aim to corner 33 percent of the global GNSS downstream market for Europe by 2025.

Galileo Services argues that unless an effective and long-term strategy is in place during the Galileo early services exploitation phase — from 2016, the current official start date for services — the window of opportunity for European industry will be closed. Europe’s goal of achieving GNSS autonomy is also at risk. The paper warns that Galileo is just one of three new GNSS solutions, along with the Russian GLONASS and Chinese BeiDou, that are complementing the U.S.’s GPS — and most applications do not require four GNSS constellations.

The target of European autonomy will be achieved if and only if Galileo is widely used with equipment designed and manufactured in Europe, as well as applications and services developed in Europe, concludes the paper.

More R&D Support

Part of the strategy should be enhanced support for EU GNSS technologies and applications. The European GNSS Agency (GSA) has just launched a new research support channel for GNSS chipset and receiver technologies in Europe.

The Fundamental Elements programme has a projected budget of EUR 100 million over the period 2015 to 2020 and is part, says the GSA, of an overall strategy of market uptake initiatives in accordance with EU regulations. “For the first time, EU regulation provides a financing tool for the market uptake of European GNSS chipsets and receivers,” said GSA Executive Director Carlo des Dorides in launching the new programme.

The Fundamental Elements programme complements the EU’s current Horizon 2020 research programme that focuses on adoption of Galileo and EGNOS via content and application development.

Photo: Horizon 2020 research programme

Two types of financing will be available via the Fundamental Elements programme: grants and procurement. Grants will be provided to cover up to 70 percent of funding requirements for a project, and intellectual property rights will stay with the beneficiary under the condition that the developed product is actively commercialised.

Procurement (at 100 percent funding) will be used only in cases where keeping intellectual property rights allow for the better fulfilment of the programme’s overall objectives. For example, by licensing it to different potential manufacturers rather than creating a monopoly supplier.

Meanwhile, EGNOS Continues

Of course, one EU GNSS, EGNOS, is operational. The GSA proudly announced that after extensive testing, the latest space segment — the SES-5 GEO satellite — is now fully functional. This will ensure the long-term service of EGNOS until at least 2026 and enable a range of performance improvements, including greater stability during periods of high ionospheric activity.

The SES-5 is a first step in the complete renewal of the EGNOS Space Segment, including the transition to dual-frequency, multi-constellation services. The renewal will be completed by the introduction of the ASTRA-5B signals and the procurement of a new EGNOS payload, both planned for 2016.

In parallel, the GSA and ESA have met formally to launch activities to develop the system further following the signing of a working agreement for EGNOS in July. Under the agreement, ESA will be responsible for the development and procurement of future EGNOS evolutions, such as the forthcoming release (V2.4.2), and a new generation of the EGNOS system (V3).

SES-5 GEO satellite (artist’s depiction, ILS/Loral).

JOHAN Sports Tracker

One of the annual gatherings of the whole European GNSS value chain will take place in October in Berlin with the Satellite Masters conference and awards ceremony. We can be sure that comforting words will be spoken by persons from the Commission, the GSA and ESA about their future plans and present progress. But the real buzz of this event is from the showcase of new ideas and applications for Galileo and EGNOS from pretty much every corner of Europe and beyond.

Despite the uncertainties expressed by some big industrial players, and slow progress in establishing the actual infrastructure, there is still an entrepreneurial enthusiasm from the ‘small guys’ to get involved in this space-based business.

I have attended these events for a few years now. One of the most enthusiastic winners of recent years is JOHAN, a sports application named after renowned Dutch soccer player and now sport commentator Johan Cruyff.

The application is the brainchild of Dutch graduate Jelle Reichert, whom I first met when he won the 2013 European Satellite Navigation Competition with this innovative EGNOS-enhanced tracking idea. “We are now operational with our first four clients! And in a final testing phase we are making the system ready for a commercial launch at the beginning of 2016,” he tells me. “We also just have an investor on board, which allows us to hire personnel and take the final steps to become really commercially ready.”

In just 18 months, Jelle’s idea has been brought into life with support from GSA and ESA. The JOHAN sports tracker and application helps improve teams by monitoring on-field performance. The system’s small, lightweight trackers, or pebbles, use GNSS technology such as EGNOS to ensure reliability and precision.

The trackers are small and light so they can fit into training vests worn by players across a variety of field sports, though early adopters have all been football teams so far. The trackers measure location, speed, distance, acceleration and orientation statistics, which are then visualized in an online data platform for coaches and players.  This allows coaches to monitor workload and performance, and get tactical information and event analysis and ensure players’ strengths are used to the whole team’s advantage. Players can spot weaknesses and improve their individual game over time.

“You can see who is training too hard and who has a higher chance of injury, as well as who is strong in which performance aspects, such as endurance, sprint, agility or recovery,” explains Jelle.

I look forward to hearing about lots more grassroots GNSS innovation in Berlin.

And Finally … An Out-of-This-World App?

Take me to the moon! And why not, indeed? It appears that Galileo could be a vital part of an interplanetary navigation system. Or at least it could help (with GPS) spacecraft to routinely navigate to the moon.

A paper in Acta Astronautica highlights the strict requirements in terms of performance, flexibility and cost for all the spacecraft subsystems required to navigate to the moon. GNSS could introduce an easier way to provide an autonomous orbit determination system using an on-board GNSS receiver. While GNSS receivers have already been used successfully to pilot craft in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), their use for very High Earth Orbit (HEO) up to and including the Moon is an active research area.

The study from researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) made use of the Spirent GSS8000 multi-GNSS constellation simulator, which supports simultaneously the GPS and Galileo systems with L1, L5, E1 and E5 frequency bands. It showed that GNSS signals can be tracked up to the Moon’s surface, but would need new, more sensitive GNSS receiver technology. The paper describes a possible navigation solution that uses a double constellation GPS-Galileo receiver aided by an on-board orbital filter system to improve the accuracy of the navigation solution and achieve the required sensitivity. Without the filter, position error below 700 metres is possible, but the orbital filter increases the position accuracy to within about 100 metres.

Vincenzo Capuano from the EPFL team tells me that a further paper on the use of an GPS L1 C/A based orbital filter for Moon transfer orbits will be published soon, which also shows an achievable accuracy of a few hundred meters. So who needs expensive tracking stations for a flight to the moon?

But the work also has a very practical down-to-Earth application. The EPFL team is developing more sensitive GNSS receivers to pick up these weak signals, and the new receivers could find applications on Earth where current receivers often struggle to get a location, such as inside buildings or in built-up areas, where signals are weak.

A bientȏt, as they say in these parts.

About the Author: Tim Reynolds

Tim Reynolds is director of Inta Communication Ltd. and a long-term Brussels observer writing on many aspects of European government policy and implementation for a range of clients and publications. He is the contributing editor for GPS World’s new quarterly e-newsletter, EAGER: the European GNSS and Earth Observation Report.