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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 July 2007, 07:29 GMT 08:29 UK
Galileo challenges sat-nav firms
By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Roads affected by earthquake
Last year's winner may help predict earthquakes and tsunami
Entrepreneurs are being urged to look to the future of satellite navigation.

A competition, which aims to find novel ideas that exploit the pin-point accuracy of Europe's soon-to-launch Galileo system, is calling for entries.

Previous winners include a system that monitors changes in the ground that occur before an earthquake strikes.

The eventual winner of the UK Satellite Navigation Challenge will then compete in a European tournament for cash and support to kick-start the business.

"Everybody has been amazed at what clever entrepreneurs have been able to do [with GPS]; it does far more than what anyone could have dreamed of when they invented the system," said Richard Peckham of EADS Astrium Navigation, and one of the Judges of the UK competition.

"I think the same will be true in the future when you have Galileo plus GPS."

He said the UK competition was primarily looking for something that had business potential.

"You are also looking for novelty and whether people will be one day willing to pay for the capability."


Last year's competition, for example, was won by Genesys Consultancy, which suggested a product to help predict natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Unlike previous winners, GeoSynch, as the product is known, primarily uses the increased accuracy of the timing signals from the Galileo satellites rather than its positioning application.

The company triumphed in both the UK challenge and the European Galileo Masters.

Artist's impression of Galileo constellation, Esa
A European Commission and European Space Agency project
30 satellites to be launched in batches by end of 2011-12
Will work alongside US GPS and Russian Glonass systems
Promises real-time positioning down to less than a metre
Guaranteed under all but most extreme circumstances
Suitable for safety-critical roles where lives depend on service

The system could also help oil companies keep track of their reserves and improve prospecting for gas, water or even archaeological ruins.

"The background to this is seismology," explained Conor Keegan, director of Genesys Consultancy.

Seismology is an established technique, often used in the oil industry, which allows scientists to peer beneath the surface of the Earth.

By studying how sound waves produced by earthquakes or artificial sources, such as explosions, are reflected by different subsurface layers, seismologists can build up a picture of the structures beneath their feet.

The technique can be expensive and time consuming. However, GeoSynch should reduce this cost.

"There is also a considerable gain in accuracy over what is used today," said Mr Keegan.

GeoSynch will take advantage of the Galileo satellites' onboard atomic clocks to accurately measure the time between when waves leave a controlled source and when they are picked up by an array of iPod-sized wireless ground sensors.

When a system has to measure sound waves travelling at 8km/s, tiny fractions of a second count.

"That will allow you to improve the accuracy of the time measurement by a few orders of magnitude," Mr Keegan told the BBC News website.

Disaster monitoring

This improvement will allow seismologists to gain new insights into subterranean features and processes.

"One of the main users we see for this is oil and gas prospecting companies," said Mr Keegan.

Artist's impression of SSTL's Galileo test satellite (Esa)
Galileo is expected to become fully operational in 2012
But rather than helping them to find new reserves, GeoSynch may allow them to work out when to stop pumping oil.

"Today there is no way of accurately measuring the depletion in an oil field," he said.

"If the oil reserves drop down below a certain level it is no longer commercially viable for them to continue working it." By mapping tiny subsurface changes, GeoSynch should have the accuracy to tell them when to stop.

But the application is not just limited to the oil industry. Mr Keegan also believes that it could be used to predict natural disasters.

"Before an earthquake there is compression of a fault and then that is released," he explained.

"When you compress earth it changes in density and there is therefore a change in the speed of sound [travelling through it]."

By measuring these subtle shifts and comparing them to areas where there is a build up of stress in the Earth's crust, Mr Keegan believes the system could help predict the cataclysmic events.

Prize draw

He is now working towards building a prototype of the system, helped along by the cash he received from the Galileo Masters.

"If everything goes to plan we could commercialise this in three years," he said.

That would mean that he could be up and running using the US GPS system even before the Galileo system is switched on, a date currently set for 2012.

Then he may be joined by a raft of other fledgling businesses given a boost by the UK Satellite Navigation Challenge.

The winners of this year's competition will win more than 35,000 worth of prizes including a patent for their idea.

The European winner will win a further 10,000 euros and the possibility of working with the European Space Agency to develop the proposal.

"A lot of the ideas coming forward are very futuristic," said Adam Tucker of the Hertfordshire Business Incubation Centre (HBic), that runs the event. "What we are doing is providing them with a platform to assist them which may make them a commercial and viable business."

The competition's website will close to bids on 31 July.

Sat-nav GNSS Schematic (BBC)
Satellite navigation systems determine a position by measuring the distances to a number of known locations - the Galileo satellites
The distance to one satellite defines a sphere of possible solutions; the distances to four satellites defines a single, common area
The accuracy of the distance measurements determines how small the common area is and thus the accuracy of the final location
In practice, a receiver captures atomic-clock time signals sent from the satellites and converts them into the respective distances
The whole system is monitored from the ground to ensure satellite clocks do not drift and give out misleading timings

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