Earth to Galileo: spread the word

Ignorance and misinformation are rife when it comes to satellite positioning. If the EU doesn’t get out and publicise how its new system can work, it may not work.

Ten years ago Top Gear magazine sent me to Paris to be the first to test drive a fancy new prototype. I was told to expect something red, powerful and more fun than a prancing horse. Obviously it was going to be a carbon-fibre Ferrari so I slapped on the lard and swam the Channel in my eagerness to get on the grid.

What I actually got was a mass-produced Volvo saloon with a box of wires, an aerial and a small screen in the dash. The demo kit was the forerunner of satnav and it did a reasonable job on the autoroutes around Charles de Gaul airport. But I gave it a poor press, no doubt because my expectations of driving a thoroughbred sports car had been kicked in the teeth.

A decade on and satnav is an optional extra in hundreds of thousands of cars. Until last week I still regarded it as an exorbitant version of an Ordnance Survey map. But at the weekend it directed me safely through a Byzantine network of Dorset lanes to the front gate of a farmhouse – in the dead of night.

That’s the problem facing Galileo. It’s the EU’s civilian answer to the US military-owned Global Positioning System but few seem to understand how global navigation works or what it can do. Take Dan Brown. Millions who have read his blockbuster thriller The Da Vinci Code will now believe that a tiny GPS button can not only work out a person’s location to an accuracy of a couple of metres when they are deep inside a large building but it can also transmit that information to a third party. Brown should know better but clearly he doesn’t. The technology in the original puppet version of Thunderbirds was more convincing than that.

Likewise, equal ignorance is displayed in recent press reports about the new Electrostar trains on Southern Railways, whose doors won’t open automatically when they should.

Hard-pressed newshounds have suggested that each train sends a signal to a satellite, asking permission from orbiting station-masters to unlock the carriage doors. They write that Sussex clouds have blocked the signals and scuppered the system, trapping commuters inside.

‘I tell journalists that oil tankers at sea depend on GPS and that even huge banks of storm clouds don’t interfere with GPS signals,’ said Southern’s weary press officer. The actual problem, he explained, is a component on the train that garbles the GPS signal.

The information may be of little comfort to those whose journeys have been disrupted by the glitch but at least the engineers seem to understand global navigation systems better than hacks.

But for Galileo it is more serious than a mere handful of misinformed media types. The danger is that widespread ignorance of a relatively simple concept could undermine the potential of Galileo.

If the public believes that a wisp of cumulonimbus can flummox a satnav chip in a new mobile, like the one being developed by Siemens, they are not going to buy the phone. If they do buy it and then discover they can’t get a location signal in the snug bar of their local, they will never buy another one. It is crucial that people have confidence in the system – and to win that Galileo has got to get out there and explain itself.

There is a lot at stake – up to e3.4bn (£2.3bn), according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers. That’s the estimated cost of building, launching and maintaining a constellation of 30 satellites. The first experimental satellite is due to be lofted before the end of 2005 by a Soyuz rocket launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Russians have much experience of global navigation matters. After half a decade of apparent disinterest, the Federation’s Ministry of Defence has begun to rebuild its own ailing GLONASS constellation and there are now 10 in operation. In comparison, though, the US Department of Defence has 28 GPS satellites.

With so many artificial guiding stars already available for navigation, location and timing purposes, the consortium behind Galileo justifies its project with forceful economic arguments. It says Galileo will generate 100,000 jobs and contracts worth e9bn every year. Obviously this is all speculation and the projected benefit/cost ratio of 4:6 should be viewed cautiously. But the claim that Galileo offers greater returns than any other infrastructure project in Europe is probably right, particularly if one compares it with the Skye Bridge and the Millennium Dome.

Yet again there’s a risk that these financial expectations will not be met, simply because Galileo is not doing enough to explain what it can do and how it can do it. Spin is not needed but simple, clear explanations are. If the media is allowed to continue misrepresenting global navigation systems then the world and her husband will be disappointed with it and eventually tell Galileo to get lost.

Max Glaskin is a freelance technology writer.