Euro satellite navigation takes to the skies

The new satellite system could deliver benefits of up to 74bn euros, and could be 'essential' to the future of transportation

A European satellite navigation service could provide the platform for thousands of new applications based on the pinpoint location information it will be able to provide.

Galileo will be Europe's own global navigation satellite system, made up of a constellation of 30 satellites (27 operational and three spares), which will deliver real-time positioning. Accuracy will be down to about a metre.

At the moment, users of satellite navigation systems in Europe rely on the US GPS service or the Russian Glonass satellites — neither of which guarantees to maintain an uninterrupted service. On top of this, Galileo promises to be more accurate and provide services that US military-run GPS can't do so well.

The first test satellite — the Giove-A — was launched in December last year and another five satellites will go up in the next couple of years to test the project. Depending on satellite launches some services could be available from 2008.

While satellite positioning technology is now becoming commonplace through the use of sat-nav systems in cars, the success of Galileo could also pave the way for a number of new services that require more accuracy than GPS can currently offer.

EU figures suggest the new satellite system could deliver benefits of up to 74bn euros (£50bn) — not bad on a 3bn euro investment.

Lord Kinnock was one of the champions of Galileo when he was Europe's transport commissioner and is still a big supporter, praising the "limitless potential" of the constellation of satellites. "It's a long way from science fiction — it's science fact," he said.

James Raper, professor of geographic information science at City University, explained: "It will finish the job the GPS started. Location information must become as pervasive as timing information — and we've all got watches."

Galileo could allow thousands of niche applications to flourish — from bidding for car parking spaces in the centre of town to measuring a runner's weekly training progress — that can't be done at the moment, he said.

But the applications most likely to benefit are road charging and vehicle speed limiting systems.

Professor David Begg, director of the Centre for Transport Policy at the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen said: "Galileo is not just desirable from a transport policy perspective but essential."

The answer to congestion is not to add more and more roads, said Begg, who until last year was chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport. Current congestion charging technology is too expensive to roll out everywhere, while GPS is not accurate enough to use to charge motorists, he said.

Speaking at a roundtable sponsored by Logica CMG, which is already working on a number of contracts in the project, Begg added: "What we need to be focusing on is more efficient use of the capacity we have, and Galileo is the key to the door."

But just by changing the way people pay — moving from a flat-rate road tax to one based on usage — congestion can be cut by almost half, he claims. Motorists would either make fewer journeys or make more of them off-peak.

The government thinks that it could be feasible to use Galileo for road pricing by 2014.

While no government that wants to get re-elected is likely to make road pricing compulsory in the short term, another way satellite technology could become pervasive is through the use of vehicle speed-limiting technology. Drivers could get cheaper car insurance if they agree to have such technology in operation on their vehicles.