All you need is nav

06 Jan 2006

It's a long time since The Beatles captured the world's imagination when they sang 'All You Need is Love' via the amazing new medium of satellite.

Today, 38 years on from the summer of love, satellites are unremarkable. But they've become news once more with the launch of the EU's new satellite tracking system.

The European Space Agency deposited the first of its 27 Galileo satellites into space over Christmas.

Galileo the 16th century astronomer challenged the authority of the day by asserting that the Earth orbited elliptically around the Sun. Galileo the satellite system merely wishes to stay in medium-Earth orbit to deliver tracking data.

Nonetheless it is a challenge to the existing order, the Navstar system run by the US Department of Defense.

Better known as simply GPS, Navstar was planned in the latter years of the Cold War to provide better navigation for ships and aircraft, as well as to direct submarine-launched ICBMs to their targets.

Navstar, like Galileo with 27 satellites, cost $12 billion to build and has been operating since 1995.

For commercial customers, the standard service (or SPS) is capable of reporting an object's location to more than five meters. The precise (or PPS) configuration offered to the military tracks down to centimeters.

The commercial version will be upgraded by 2012 to track to within one meter. The $4.3 billion Galileo system will offer that from the start of operations in 2010.

A third GPS system, Russia's Glonass, also a Cold War legacy, is being rejuvenated. However, its smaller end-user market scale means it will not be able to drive down the cost of terminal devices as the US and European systems will.

The technology for satellite-based positioning systems is straightforward. They triangulate the unknown positions of earthbound people and machines with known positions of satellites 20,000 kilometers above.

There are some obvious political agendas running. The Americans object to Galileo, claiming it might interfere with GPS. They also question China's support (Beijing has kicked in $300 million). The Europeans are keen to get out from under the US military.

For ordinary people, Galileo's real impact will be on the kick-start it will deliver to location-based services.

God only knows how big the location and nav markets are now. The scope covers everything from auto navigation to cellular.

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