How did satellites become political footballs? The UK government is considering building its own satellite navigation system after the EU announced the UK wouldn’t be allowed full access to Galileo, the European equivalent of GPS, after Brexit. British-based firms will also be prevented from bidding for contracts to help build Galileo.
This isn’t just grandstanding. As well as general open location data, Galileo provides a more secure “Public Regulated Service” (PRS) for organisations such as the police, coastguard and customs officers. This includes sensitive information that cannot currently be shared with non-EU members. So to gain access to Galileo’s full service, the UK government would have to reach another difficult agreement with the EU on top of everything else it hopes to negotiate.
The UK is very keen to grow its space industry, and the sector already has much of the needed capability to develop a new global navigation satellite system (GNSS). So, if full UK participation in Galileo is no longer allowed after Brexit, a UK GNSS would both be feasible and provide a much-needed boost for the country’s space sector. But, of course, this will come with a significant cost for the UK government.
The average British person interacts with satellites approximately 30 times a day and this is set to increase tenfold over the next five years. We all know how sat-nav geolocation services help us travel, but other aspects of the business world such as financial services also rely heavily on GNSS data. This is because the satellites contain highly accurate clocks that enable electronic sales transactions, stock market trading and ATMs.
Once it has left the EU, the UK won’t be entirely excluded from access to Galileo services, just as it can access data from the US’s GPS system. But the reason Galileo was built in the first place was to provide a reliable, secure alternative that European governments had some control over.
There have been times when GPS has failed or has been closed to outside countries. For example, the service briefly failed in 2015 due to the upload of an incorrect time, and the impact was felt globally on emergency services, digital radio and even electrical grids. The US also denied GPS access to India during the 1999 Kargil War for military reasons and, in theory, could do so again to other countries.
So a dedicated British GNSS would give the UK government guaranteed secure access to a satellite service over which they had full control. It would also avoid the need to negotiate privileged access to Galileo’s special PRS signal for security services, which other non-EU European countries such as Norway and Switzerland have so far failed to do.
The UK is also very keen to grow its domestic space industry, and has ambitions for it to be worth £40 billion by 2030. This is on the back of a robust and ambitious satellite manufacturing sector that already significantly contributes to around a quarter of all large communication satellites in the world. The UK is also a recognised leader in the development and manufacture of smaller satellites such as miniaturised “cubesats”.
The latest publication from industry organisation the Space Growth Partnership states that the “the decision to leave the EU creates particular need to raise our game and avoid complacency”. But it also stresses the need to develop the UK’s own capabilities and for the government to become a key customer of the space sector in order to drive further investment.
The main satellite-maker in the UK, the pan-European firm Airbus has already reportedly said it has the skills and expertise to lead development of any UK alternative to Galileo. The UK government has also heavily invested in research and development for space robotics, such as through the £29m FAIR-SPACE Hub at the University of Surrey. Couple this with plans to make the UK a viable launchpad for smaller satellites by 2020 made possible by a recent change to the law, and there is a distinct possibility that the UK space sector could respond well to the challenge to develop a UK GNSS.
The UK has already contributed €1.4 billion (£1.2 billion) to the estimated €10 billion euros (£8.5 billion) cost of Galileo. Rough estimates for the UK to build its own GNSS currently sit at £5 billion. But a more realistic estimate would require a long investigation, and other GNSS systems including Galileo and GPS have gone over their original budgets.
Yet while it may be difficult to claw back the money spent on Galileo, or justify such a large project in response to Brexit, secure access to a GNSS is vital for modern society. The UK and its space sector in particular should undoubtedly be deeply concerned about losing access to Galileo and other European space programmes after Brexit.
So perhaps now, more than ever, a UK GNSS would be seen as a welcome endorsement of the strengths of the UK space sector. As Richard Peckham, the chair of the UKSpace trade association who has worked on the Galileo project himself, is quoted as saying, “a British sat-nav would be a fantastic shot in the arm”.