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Using space to navigate our way to growth

Jonathan Amos | 08:25 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011

The European Commission uses a very interesting statistic in support of its proposed satellite navigation system, Galileo.

It appeared with the "mid-term review [200KB]" of the project and the assessment of the future cost to complete the network's infrastructure - a further 1.9bn euros on top of the already committed 3.4bn. The stat resulted in some discussion in the office. Here it is:

"It is estimated that currently 6-7% of GDP of developed countries, €800bn in Europe, depends on satellite navigation."

If correct, it's an astonishing figure. We started thinking of some high-value activities that might account for it, such as the big dealings on the money markets which can be stamped with GPS time; or what about the total value of goods on all container ships that use GPS as a navigation tool?

Galileo schematic

Galileo could be fully operational by the end of the decade, the mid-term review said

I asked the Commission to source and justify the figure. So far it hasn't got back to me. But even if the stat were wide of the mark by an order of magnitude, it would still be huge. It shouldn't really surprise us.

GPS has been an extraordinary driver of wealth [2MB PDF]. As I always say, consider just the co-founders of Garmin, manufacturers of personal navigation devices. Gary Burrell and Min Kao are both billionaires listed on the Forbes Top 400 list of the richest people in the US. And they made their fortunes before the era of modern smartphones that are all now shipped with a sat-nav chip.

The European Commission made clear in its Galileo mid-term review what most people had realised a long time ago - namely that Galileo of itself will generate very little income.

Revenues back to the system from its very accurate, highly restricted services, which will be provided to a relatively small group of customers (predominantly government agencies), will generate sums that might run into the tens of millions of euros annually - at best (Page 20 of the review).

As with GPS, the real value is to be found downstream in the wider economic activity that will ride off the back of Galileo's sat-nav signals, or to be more precise the enhanced capability that will come from having Galileo and GPS working in tandem and pushing each other forward.

In that sense, Galileo should be viewed like all those roads across Europe that have been built with money from Brussels. The benefit is not in the roads per se but in the economic vibrancy they've opened up in locations that previously had poor transportation links. The value of this return dwarfs the initial investment in layers of asphalt.

This week I met with Rosemary McClenaghan. She's a former social worker who now runs a taxi and chauffeur business on the outskirts of Belfast.

She had a very simple but brilliant idea. Wouldn't it be great if you could have an app on your phone that allowed you to call a taxi, see where the nearest vehicle was to you, follow its progress to your location, and be comfortable about getting into that cab because all the information about it (driver's name, vehicle make and model, license registration, etc) had already been sent to your phone?

Rosemary just had the vision. She's not a technologist, so she went to someone who is to help her turn that vision into reality.

The result is an iPhone app now being trialled in Belfast called TaxiZapp. Rosemary told me:

"The beauty of it is that it shows when the driver tells you he's on the way, you can actually see the driver on the map driving towards you. So, it's pinging his location all the time like sat-nav.
 
"They can't lie to you and say 'I'll be 10 minutes' because you can see where they are; and they can see where you are, too. They get your information as well. So if they have any difficulty - say they hit roadworks - they can actually call you. And all the details stay on your phone as well. If you arrive home and think 'I left something in the taxi', like your wallet or your camera, you can check who the driver was and get back in touch with them.
 
"At the moment it's just an iPhone app but you could use it on any internet-enabled phone by going to the web and using the system there, in which case the information gets sent to you via text message.
 
"The next most important thing for us is to get an Android app because a lot of the drivers are switching to Android phones because they are cheaper.
 
"For many people, it will be the safety factor, the reassurance. They will know all the driver's details and we make it easy from the application for you to quickly send those details to someone via email to say 'I've just got into this taxi with this person and here's all the details'."

The idea resulted in Rosemary becoming last year's Galileo Master, the UK winner in a pan-European competition to find innovative applications for location and timing data delivered from space.

Grace building

Grace is on the site of the old Raleigh factory

Her prize, officially awarded this week, is a cheque for £10,000, and some business and technical support to develop TaxiZapp further.

That support is coming from a shiny new centre in Nottingham called Grace.

The name is an acronym within an acronym, so bear with me. Grace stands for GNSS Research and Applications Centre of Excellence, where the GNSS stands for Global Navigation Satellite Systems.

Grace runs the spectrum from academic research to nestling start-up companies. It's not just concerned with sat-nav. Indeed, there's a lot of work going on inside the centre to tie together all sorts of geospatial information from a variety of motion sensors.

I heard about one application that could be used to follow the progress of firefighters into a burning building from small devices implanted in their boots.

Grace is there to foster smart ideas and help them get to market. Interestingly, it's built on the site of the famous old Raleigh bicycle factory. Raleigh produced cycles in the city for more than 100 years before moving that operation overseas to places like Vietnam.

Nottingham, like much of the UK and Europe, can no longer compete with the low-cost manufacturing done in Asia. What it can do instead, however, is pursue hi-tech, high-value activities.  All things connected with sat-nav are some of those activities. 

I'll be writing a lot about Galileo this year, not least because we will see the first two "pathfinders", as I call them, go into orbit.

More properly called the In Orbit Validation (IOV) models, these satellites will prove the Galileo sat-nav system works end-to-end.

Four spacecraft are needed to do this. The first two, with their British-assembled payloads, will launch on the first Soyuz to fly from the new Sinamary spaceport in French Guiana. The second pair should go up in early 2012.

Production of the next 14 operational satellites should begin mid-year in a new purpose-built factory facility in Guildford run by SSTL.

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