Let’s not get lost

Satellite navigation is teetering on the edge of being a ubiquitous technology. Although not standard in every car, it’s well into the mainstream.

Satellite navigation is teetering on the edge of being a ubiquitous technology. Although not standard in every car, it’s well into the mainstream; nobody’s surprised by it, and if it’s not in the majority of vehicles now, it soon will be. But those who depend on the little screen and the vaguely reproachful synthesised voice to find their way should take care, and keep their road atlases handy — glitches with the system could be just around the corner, it seems.

A report prepared for the US Congress warns that the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites could be on the verge of failure. Devised and operated by the US Department of Defense, GPS is one of the classic examples of military technology that’s moved into the civilian sector, but its oldest components are now almost 20 years old. Plans are well advanced to update it, but according to the US Government Accountability Office, which oversees public spending, cost overruns and delays are threatening to put the whole system out of commission.

The first of the new generation of GPS satellites was supposed to be launched two years ago, but the US Air Force, which builds them, has had considerable trouble with the technology and the finance involved. Launch is now scheduled for next year, but the GAO warns that this might be too late to keep the system running without interruptions.

So, what now? Is there going to be a sudden increase in cars driving into rivers and articulated lorries getting stuck down country lanes? Is this the best news ever for London taxi drivers, who keep the entire A-Z stored in their heads and scorn the use of technology? Probably not: industry observers have pointed out that GPS is of such strategic importance that the Pentagon can’t possibly let it fail. But we’ve heard the ‘too big to fail’ argument several times in the past month, generally in connection with organisations that have just failed. And money’s tight everywhere. Better to be safe than sorry, surely.

And this is where alternative systems come in. The European Union’s Galileo global navigation satellite system, which is scheduled to come into service in 2012, is specifically designed to be an alternative and a complement to GPS, designed from the outset as a civilian system. This sets it apart from GPS, which could, theoretically, be withdrawn from civil applications at any time. It’s a costly project — €3.4bn — and has received some flack for this. Why spend all this money, the critics argue, when GPS is working perfectly well?

The GAO report provides the answer to this. It’s not just motorists that use satellite positioning data; it’s become indispensable for many infrastructure applications. The functionality itself is clearly too important to be allowed to fail, even if individual systems are not. Redundancy is seen as vital for many critical systems, and satellite positioning is that critical.

Of course, Galileo is good for the UK engineering sector. As we’ve pointed out many times, Britain is a leading player in the satellite technology industry, and many systems for the new satellites — and probably some of the satellites themselves — will undoubtedly be built here. These satellites that stop us losing our way can’t be allowed to lose their own way.

Stuart Nathan
Special Projects Editor

(Not great at reading maps)