Galileo, Europe's rival to GPS, now operational - woot

The Galileo navigation satellite system is now “live”. Its purported accuracy could prove a boon for any number of technological applications. Hasn't been celebrated much in Britain, though.

The news at the moment is all of worrying things. There is an undertone of threat of some catastrophic geopolitical miscalculation which could lead to nuclear war. Politics is exciting right now. Does anyone remember the headlines of 10 years ago when news of some alteration in the phrasing of the European constitution could make front-page headlines? Neither do I, barely.

The European story of the week is something of a blast from the past as it is redolent of a time when Europe was more confident. Ironically, it’s a space project, Galileo, which has been so long in the making it is like a time traveller from the past rather than the harbinger of a more technological future. This is a central crux of the European equivalent to GPS.

Its selling point, when imposed upon the member states 17 years ago, was that not only would it make Europe independent of what was, after all, a Pentagon project – GPS was a US Department of Defense project – but it promised greater accuracy. Some experts say cautiously that it is to within a metre; but some boosters say its accuracy is to within a few centimetres, which would be truly astonishing.

There have been delays due to funding problems – it was taken over by the European Commission in 2008 – and in that time, the GPS system has narrowed the gap in terms of accuracy, although it’s not clear whether it will ever be quite as good as Galileo promises to be.

Eighteen satellites are now up, with 12 to go (by 2020), and Galileo is, as of 15 December, officially operational. The bad news is that it is currently only compatible with two obscure brands of mobile phone. Of course, more interoperability is to be expected if the mobile phone makers get on board. Some experts have predicted that Galileo’s purportedly greater accuracy will be of great assistance for driverless cars. And of course it was very good at providing know-how for future developments in technology for the great many European scientists engaged on it.

Galileo-compatible devices for accident remote alert will have to be fitted to all new European cars from 2018. So that is the EU’s way of giving Galileo a push into the world of public use.

The British were never very interested in Galileo, and media coverage of this small milestone has been correspondingly small. Back in the day, Tory MEPs, never the most generous bunch, had fun with variations on the idea that Galileo was the “Common Agricultural Policy in space”. The Common Agricultural Policy of course being the wasteful boondoggle that kept European farmers in money while closing off imports from their African counterparts.

The final price tag is said to be about €10 billion, borne by governments after the private sector pulled out since the moneymaking potential of this free service, was never obvious. (There is said to be a premium service which will recoup some of the costs; details have yet to be worked out.) The thing about these projects though is that once they are designed, uses will be found for them that the original constructors never envisaged. Surely, that’s one conclusion we can draw from the history of technological development?

There will always be detractors who say Galileo was expensive and that it pointlessly duplicates the other satellite systems out there. The Russians have GLONASS and the Chinese - BeiDou. In addition, there is the American GPS.  Of course you’ll get conspiracy theorists arguing that Galileo is just another manifestation of Europe’s will to power as it would make Europe more independent of Pentagon decision-making, since at any moment the Americans could switch off GPS to anyone but their own military.  Any European military independence is of course far off.

Although there might be idealists in Paris and Brussels dreaming of Europe as an independent military power, can’t we for the moment just celebrate the arrival of a satellite system that could be more accurate than anything we’ve seen and which could produce a number of civilian spin-off applications to everyone’s betterment?

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