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Galileo Masters

vulog.jpgGalileo is a satellite-based positioning network similar to -- but more accurate than -- the well-known Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS, put into space by the United States, originally limited civilian accuracy but gave the military full access; as noted in the comments by read Jim Studt, since 2000 all GPS users have an accuracy of about 2 meters. Galileo, a European Space Agency system, uses the same overall protocols as GPS (and therefore accessible using the same hardware), but its readings will be accurate to less than a meter. Galileo is set to be operational by 2008. The European Union, in an attempt to encourage innovative uses of Galileo, holds an annual Galileo Masters competition, and this year's winners have a distinctly green aspect.

The top prize went to VU Log, a French company building a satellite-monitored electric car sharing network. As the BBC describes it:

The transport application devised by the Vu Log company in Sophia Antipolis, France, envisages a fleet of "green" vehicles on city roads. Each electrically powered mini-car would be equipped with instant and highly precise positioning equipment. Commuters could use the internet or their mobile phone to find the nearest vehicle, jump in and start it with a smartcard, and then drive it to their destination.
"There would be no constraint - you could leave the car where you wanted," explained Vu Log's George Gallais.

"The service provider would come and charge the cars up every two or three days. Being used just for short distances, they wouldn't need charging every day," he told the BBC News website.

The best UK entry was TrackerBack, a method of monitoring the real-time location of truck loads. The green application? Control of illegal waste and dumping:

"With the sub-metre accuracy of Galileo, you'd even know how high off the ground that consignment of tyres was," [the inventor, Richard White] said. "You'd know instantly if it had been dumped over a hedge rather being taken to the reprocessing plant."

It remains to be seen whether applications such as VU Log and TrackerBack will show up outside of Europe. There's no reason why they couldn't. Like GPS, Galileo will be accessible world-wide, and the cost of positioning system receivers is now low enough for casual use. By 2008, the technology should be small enough and inexpensive enough for routine inclusion in most portable communication and information devices.

That strikes me as an interesting next-step version of the Galileo Masters challenge: what can we do with the system once it's in the hands (or, more precisely, in the phones and laptops) of nearly everyone in Europe, North America and Japan?

(Thank you, Lorenzo!)

Comments (4)

Jim Studt:

The part of GPS that reduces accuracy is known as Selective Availability. That used to hold civilian accuracy to around 100ft. That was turned off in 2000 and since then everyone has enjoyed the full resolution. Also since that time WAAS has been deployed which further enhances resolution. 2 meter resolution is common in consumer GPS units now.
The reason for Galileo is more about who has control of the system, and when they can turn down the capabilities for civilians then the accuracy of the system.

Thanks, Jim. I'll update the post accordingly.

Having recently navigated up the Irish Sea being forced to ignore two GPS units which disagreed with one another, the sooner Gallileo is in orbit the better. The boosters which launch the satellites should have 'Eppur si muove' (It still moves) on the side in large letters - the words Gallilieo is said to have muttered as he sat having been forced to recant his 'heretical' beliefs under threat of torture.

Although Selective Availability was turned off in 2000, average GPS accuracy is still in the 10-15 metres range (before SA being turned off, accuracy was rather 100 metres, not 100 ft). WAAS is only available on continental US. The correspondent European augmentation is called EGNOS and actually brings accuracy to some 2-3 metres on Europe and North Africa. These regional augmentation systems rely on geostationary satellites with all the related visibility problems satellite TV users well know. They are, hence, mainly targeted to some specific applications in the air and maritime transport.
Galileo not only promises better accuracy (around 3-5 metres without augmentation) than GPS, but also an additional constellation to GPS, bringing the total number of available positioning satellites to more than 50. This will largely increase the probability to "see" the minimum number of satellites needed for a fix even in urban canyons. In addition Galileo will provide, for certain services, integrity signals giving information about the quality and reliability of the positioning signals, enabling a number of "sensitive" applications where the user needs "guaranteed" quality of positioning. All this, together with the issue of civilian control over the system, makes Galileo an essential infrastructure for Europe. Considering its overall cost is “equivalent to that of some 150 kilometres of semi-urban motorway or the cost of just one track of the main tunnel for the future high-speed rail link between Lyon and Turin”, it seems to be well worth the money!


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