Without Galileo, life goes on

July 25, 2019  - By
Galileo's Control Centre in Fucino is used to oversee the satellites' navigation payloads and services.(Photo: ESA)

Galileo’s Control Centre in Fucino is used to oversee the satellites’ navigation payloads and services. (Photo: ESA)

Global markets learned something important from the brown-out of Galileo signals over a week’s time in July: Life goes on without a hiccup in the absence of the European GNSS.

Very unfortunately for the backers and boosters of Galileo, this message will reverberate down through the years. If vital affairs proceed unaffected by Galileo’s travails, or triumphs for that matter, who needs it? The response, a shrug. I’m tempted to say a Gallic shrug, were it not that the Gauls, the French, are prime among the system’s boosters and backers.

I’m among that number as well. Galileo and I have known each other all our lives, all our professional lives. When I started on this magazine 19 years ago, the first story I edited was on Galileo’s public-private partnership.

Galileo then was just a collective gleam in several politicians’ and scientists’ eyes. Look how far it has come: 20 satellites flying in various operational or testing states.

The European GNSS Agency was very careful to point out during the crisis that Galileo is in its initial services phase. Its signals are available for use in combination with other GNSS and are not intended to provide a complete solution by themselves. This status is expressly designed to allow for “the detection of technical issues before the system becomes fully operational.”

So, it doesn’t count. Because, the game hasn’t really started yet. Right?

Not quite.

Because this episode occurred, it will be remembered. Because it lasted so long, it will be factored. Because the official announcements about it were so obscurantist, the system may find it more difficult to regain trust.

Of course a full, careful, in-depth investigation must take place before officially announcing what caused the debacle. But more than was said could surely have been said, during the crisis. A full week now, as of this writing, after the week-long outage concluded, we still have no indication as to which piece of ground equipment or software failed and why there wasn’t a smooth transition from the Italian to the German control station.

Redundancy was built into the system to preclude exactly such failures as this. Why didn’t redundancy work?

Transparency is a rhyming word that goes well with redundancy.

Trust — corporate confidence — is fundamental to installation in multi-GNSS chips, boards, modules, all manner of devices. Four systems compete for spots at a table that may comfortably fit only three. Even three could be a stretch.

GLONASS suffered a much shorter (11-hour) timing glitch in 2014, and has yet to climb back into the public-confidence ring.

Here’s a very public lesson in transparency: When the GPS satellite SVN49 failed rather spectacularly in 2009, the GPS Directorate was very forthcoming, almost embarrassingly so, about what happened and why. GPS never lost a step in the public’s and the industry’s eyes.

About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.

1 Comment on "Without Galileo, life goes on"

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  1. This assessment isn’t quite fair. Current systems did continue to function, but even current systems experienced degraded accuracy, availability, and integrity with the lack of Galileo. The next generation of systems are making use of Galileo’s unique functionalities and its place as one of four constellations to provide higher availability and integrity to meet the very challenging requirements for autonomous driving.

    Can you provide data to back up your claim that no services were affected? We saw degraded functionality in several regions when it came to accuracy and availability especially in urban canyons with limited skyview.