The day the Galileo announcement was made
I was at the EU’s Covent Garden building in Brussels the day the Galileo announcement was made that the independent European position system will be closed to the UK. Experts had gathered there for the annual review of the latest proposals vying for part of a pot of nearly Euros 40bn worth of funding. Was this week’s news the first clear nail in the coffin for Britain’s great leap into the Space Industry? I was in the right place with the right people to chew on the inevitability of all this.
A spring board for geographic innovations
In the 1990’s Bill Clinton, at the time USA’s yet-to-be-impeached President, threw open the access to the US’s GPS array of positioning satellites. Since then services that rely on this free-to-use positioning service have impacted almost every niche of navigation that already existed and has been a spring board for geographic innovations around the globe (indeed that was the publicly announced intention). As a sponsor of Geomob, once Innovation manager at Ordnance Survey and owner of 2 geo innovation businesses (SplashMaps and dbyhundred) I’ve seen hundreds of these new applications and regularly report on them through these channels. The number of services dependent upon the US’s GPS array in the commercial sector is now immense. And, worryingly all the militaries are just as dependent.
Independence from this amazing array
So, the EU as a whole (UK included) wanted independence from this amazing array and started to invest in a system to rival and perhaps better the US system.
Using power to better the world
Spending time with the EC so soon after launching new SplashMaps’ propositions in New York puts a broader context across this (possibly) tragic situation. The lack of trust in the USA, felt by most at the European Commission buildings this week, is highlighted as the country’s representative turns his back on liberal values and becomes more obsessed in headlines and self-publicity than the pursuit of using power to better the world.
Reminiscent of WW2
Trade wars are developing, and the slow-motion disintegration of Europe sees many dependent countries in a precarious position. The Fins and Baltic states are cursed with borders the Russians see as “permeable”, the Greeks are under constant threat from Turkey and the creeping mood toward populist movements (Italy, Greece, Hungary… not to mention USA) is sharply reminiscent of WW2.
Peace on this continent
So, in this context, for THE European project – in order to maintain its proudest achievement of “peace on this continent”- needs to know it has the key to its own tactical planning. And for now, and the foreseeable future, that’s about positioning using an array of space-based satellites specifically designed, built and launched using European cash. They’re called Galileo.
Lost in the digital fog
Why does it need to be independent? Indeed why?! Afterall, networks like the Ordnance Survey’s OSNet applies Real Time Kinematic correction to the US’s GPS signal (and Galileo, China and Russia’s positioning) to make it super accurate for the purpose of survey. However, if the original signal is degraded, irregular or even switched off (Russia has no trouble switching off the electricity to the Ukraine remember), no correction will provide a reliable service. We’d all be lost in the digital fog.
Voted ourselves dependent upon the USA
The EC’s response to the UK’s request for continued access to Galileo was that, as a “Third country” outside the member states, the UK has no right nor access to the higher level Galileo services (PRS) for the purpose of security. By voting “independence” from the EU we’ve voted ourselves dependent upon the USA, our special friends. This was something we signed up to when we started investing our own research and innovation, money and heart into the projects that created Galileo.
Satellite Applications Catapult
In the meantime, the United Kingdom has developed unique and world beating skills in the rapidly growing area of Earth Observation. Centre of the government’s support for the sector is the Nation’s Satellite Applications Catapult. A whole floor of this futuristic building (of glass pods and stunning satellite control panels and visuals) is dedicated to project management of all the projects won (one or two won with me as bid manager 😊) by consortia based in the UK gaining funding from InnovateUK competitions financed with European Money. A speciality has grown from within to build skilled consortia to stamp the UK’s prowess on pretty much any service that relies upon satellites pointed at Earth. I’ve helped on a couple of these, preparing bids and raising over £5M for clients looking to create a platform for environmental monitoring apps based on Earth Observation.
But is this broad avenue for prosperity quickly becoming a cul-de-sac? Some would say not, but really only if the money we currently to send to Europe can end up in the hands of the satellite innovators. Likely to happen? Just listen to the poo-pooing from most economists on the recent announcement about the increased NHS spend coming from a “premium” released once Britain leaves the EU. Perhaps we’ll learn not to believe everything you see daubed on Boris busses.
A good news story?
The promising satellite industry in the UK has just been dealt a blow. These guys need a good news story after what can only be seen by most as bad.
Passion needs to be nurtured
Bad news for most, but perhaps not for all! You see, I’ve witnessed real momentum and belief behind the goal to double the value to industry (£250 bn to £500 bn) from the broader Space Sector. This passion needs to be nurtured and will still need significant support to achieve the lofty aims found in the “Prosperity from Space” Strategy, published by the Space Growth Foundation on 11th May 2018.
That’s real independence!
But at SplashMaps we offer a simple satellite back-up proposal that simply gets around the security issues association with the loss of Galileo. The story really emphasises the over reliance we have on positioning technologies. The knack of getting from A to B without a blip on a screen is a dying art for most. Embrace this observation and take your brain for a walk as well as your body. Challenge yourself and go to an unfamiliar place with just a map wrapped around your neck or stuffed in a pocket. Leave the phone for emergency calls only and use your wits to find your way. That’s real independence!