PARIS (AFP) Dec 28, 2005
By embarking on its own colossal satellite navigation project, Europe is making a 3.8 billion-euro (4.5 billion-dollar) gamble that it can beat the US at its own game and move positioning technology from military to civilian hands.
Not only do the Galileo project's backers, the European Space Agencyand the European Union, hope to gain strategic independence from the United States, whose military controls most existing satellite-driven positioning technology, they are also banking on Galileo being Europe's most profitable infrastructure investment ever.
The ESA predicts 1.8 billion people will be using the new, more accurate system by 2010 and 3.6 billion by 2020 -- a market worth some 250 billion euros (300 billion dollars), with profits projected to top overall investment by a factor of 4.6 at the least.
Satellite navigation technology enables a train or truck driver to know the precise position of their vehicle at any time, a ship to chart its course or a motorist to find their way around an unknown city.
Criminals wearing electronic bracelets can be traced, stolen cars located, stranded mountaineers rescued and even the waiting time for a bus calculated.
The technology also has many applications in areas where precise topography is vital, such as oil and mine exploration, laying oil pipelines, electrifying rural areas and the positioning of telecom towers.
The US Global Positioning System (GPS) system already offers all of these services and has become indispensable for regulating air, maritime and lately automobile traffic.
But Galileo's backers believe demand will soar as more traffic will need to be managed through already congested roads, railways, airways and ports.
Galileo will both compete with and complement GPS, which was originally developed for military targeting and positioning but was made available freely available to civilians in 1993.
The United States and the EU last year reached an accord to adopt common operating standards for the two systems, overcoming American concerns that the Galileo system will compromise the security of GPS, on which the US military is heavily dependent.
Galileo will also be compatible with the Russian GLONASS network, which like the American system is controlled by military operators that cannot guarantee to maintain an uninterrupted service, especially when national security is at stake.
According to ESA, Galileo is designed to deliver real-time positioning accuracy down to the meter (yard) range, greater than that of GPS, thanks to the near-perfect timekeeping of its atomic clocks.
It will guarantee service under all but the most extreme conditions and will inform users within seconds of a failure of any satellite, which will make it especially valuable where safety is crucial, such as running trains, guiding cars and landing aircraft.
To spread the costs of the project more widely and reduce the burden on the EU, countries outside Europe are being encouraged to invest, with China and Israel already having signed agreements and Brazil, South Korea, Canada and Australia expressing an interest.
The project's next phase will be the launch of a second GIOVE-B test satellite in 2006, followed by four working satellites by 2008. The ultimate goal remains a constellation of 30 satellites encircling the globe.
The date for opening the network to commercial use has been pushed back two years to 2010.
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