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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK
Sat-nav looks to smart ideas
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News science reporter

Galileo spacecraft (Galileo Industries)
The spacecraft should be in orbit towards the decade's end
A glorious opportunity is opening up for European businesses.

It will come in the shape of Galileo, the new 3.4-billion-euro satellite navigation system currently being constructed by the EU bloc space industry.

Compatible and interoperable with the American global positioning system (GPS), the European network will bring a step change in the accuracy and reliability of location and timing data receivable on Earth.

And for the companies with innovative ideas on how to use this improved data, there are expected to be some big new markets to exploit.

Small companies... must wake up now because in four years, they will have to move their businesses in a new direction for Galileo
Christian Stammel, Galileo Masters
Analysts believe the value of the Galileo-enhanced business - equipment and services - could be worth well in excess of 10 billion euros a year by 2020, as sat-nav functionality wheedles its way into every corner of modern life.

Some applications are obvious: consumer mobiles which not only allow you to phone ahead and book that pizza restaurant but also show you on-screen how to get there and tell you where the nearest cashpoint is located.

Other applications will stretch the imagination and ingenuity of Europe's smartest technologists.

Fish finder

A quite brilliant example is last year's winner of the Galileo Masters Competition, which aims to spur small and medium sized enterprises across Europe into thinking up new sat-nav possibilities.

Europe's own global satellite navigation system
Will work alongside US GPS and Russian Glonass systems
Promises real-time positioning down to just a few metres
Guaranteed under all but most extreme circumstances
Suitable for safety-critical systems - can run trains, guide cars and land planes
The German company HCL Technologies, from München-Hallbergmoos, is working on an inexpensive device that would help developing-nation fishermen decide where to put down their nets.

It relies on the principle that satellite signals "slow down" as they come through the atmosphere. HCLT will use these tiny "errors" to infer where the air is heavy with water and link this with the observation that such locations are often rich with fish in the sea below.

"The combination of ideas is fascinating," Christian Stammel, from the competition organisers, told the BBC News website.

Expected to be more than 400 million sat-nav users by 2015
European aerospace and electronics firms say it will create more than 100,000 jobs
Rescue services will be able to pinpoint the exact location of a car driver's accident
Will allow someone to find their way in an unfamiliar city using their mobile phone
"To find out information about the signal and then use that for a novel application - this is the sort of thinking we're looking for in small companies. They must wake up now because in four years, they will have to move their businesses in a new direction for Galileo."

The 2005 competition has extended its entry zones across Europe to seven - with one in the UK. Online submissions are being accepted from 1 May.

The eventual winner, to be announced in October, will get six months' free office space in a technology "incubator" centre, together with consultancy and promotional support.

All around

The first test satellites for Galileo are on course to launch towards the end of the year, with the full constellation of 30 spacecraft in orbit before the decade's end.

The new civilian-run network will be able to offer, for the first time, performance guarantees.

Users will get "integrity messages", which will tell them if there are errors in the signal. This should give Galileo the added reliability to be employed in critical, safety-of-life situations - guiding buses, landing planes, and keeping vehicles on motorways the required distance apart.

Bar chart showing availability of sat-nav signal in different environments (BBC/EADS-ASTRIUM)
The compatibility (same frequencies) and interoperability (used together or separately) with GPS and the Russian Glonass system should give users the confidence to get out their sat-nav devices even in heavily built-up areas.

"GPS is a wonderful system but there are limitations and if you've tried to navigate around a city centre, you lose coverage constantly," said Richard Peckham, from EADS-Astrium, which is helping to build one of the first test satellites.

"If you think about it, the design of GPS is now quite old - it goes back to the 1980s. With Galileo, with its improved signals, with more satellites - you'll have much better coverage. And this is really quite important when we want to think up new applications."

Supply chain

GPS has already spawned a huge industry. Although the US government may have paid for the whole project with tax dollars, the returns in terms of new revenues for the American economy mean that investment has been repaid many times over.

But satellite navigation is not just about making money - it also offers businesses a means of saving cash; it can make them more efficient.

Anton Meyer is working on an idea to optimise the supply chain in Germany's timber industry. The nation's forests are controlled by large numbers of private owners and knowing precisely whose wood is where is essential for ensuring payments are made correctly.

Meyer envisages putting a transponder on each log in the chain, recording its position and then tracing its progress through the sawmill.

"It means the owner is paid for his individual log - which is not the case today. On the cost side, we need less than 50 cents per cubic metre for this system. But using it, the forest owner can save up to five euros per cubic metre.

"You multiply this by the 25 million cubic metres of wood going through the sawmills and you realise why I'm doing this."

What is clear is that as sat-nav gets "under the skin" of Europe and more and more applications make use of the Galileo network, the costs of running such systems will come down further.

Already, in the short space of time that GPS has been operating, manufacturers have been able to substantially miniaturise the receiver technology and reduce its unit price.

"The GPS receiver is now a chip; we make them on a roll like a 35mm film," explained Lyn Dutton, from the Thales Group, which is currently producing some 400,000 receiver units a year.

"And what you've seen in the last few years is the coming together of the GPS technology and mapping databases, and then the third-level applications on top of that with the mobile telephone.

"When you put all this together, you really see opportunities for innovation come to the fore."

An analyst's projection of possible market value (BBC/EADS-ASTRIUM)

Dead heat for Galileo companies
01 Mar 05 |  Science/Nature
Four Galileo spacecraft ordered
21 Dec 04 |  Science/Nature
Europe presses ahead on sat-nav
10 Dec 04 |  Science/Nature
EU-US strike sat-navigation deal
26 Jun 04 |  Science/Nature
China joins EU's satellite network
19 Sep 03 |  Business
Green light for Galileo project
26 Mar 02 |  Science/Nature

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