Britain’s post-Brexit Galileo ‘rival’ is back – and it could be faster and more secure

Britain’s post-Brexit Galileo ‘rival’ is back – and it could be faster and more secure

Using at least 30 satellites Galileo is intended to provide global positioning to anyone using its service, as a separate – but interoperable – system to the US’ well-known GPS programme which works in a similar way.

But with the UK unable to have any part in Galileo’s development, the government under former Prime Minister Theresa May decided in 2018 that Britain would make its own.

And so began one of the trickiest post-Brexit developments the nation has yet encountered.

Two years on, and faced with eye-watering costs of around £5 billion, a number of ministers within various departments are trying to get the government to concede that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all and that it would be better off sweeping the whole thing under the rug.

A senior industry official close to the matter told “My view is that there is a move within many parts of the MoD, who are basically saying ‘why are we going to spend £5 billion on building something that’s just a copy of GPS and Galileo?’”

“And so they’re less enthusiastic – particularly as they’re likely to pick up parts of the bill.”

Boris Johnson speaking

It’s claimed that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings were approached by OneWeb lobbyists. (Image: Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty)

Now, though, reports have emerged that the UK is in talks with private British firm OneWeb – a bankrupt satellite company attempting to offer satellite broadband with a constellation of tens of thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

The same source added: “OneWeb went into Chapter 11 in March – they say because of Covid. Most people in the industry recognise that they had a pretty flaky business model anyway. And it sort of tipped them over the edge.”

It’s thought that this company may be able to offer the UK an alternative path to creating its own satellite navigation system – not by designing a bespoke constellation of satellites that would directly compete with Galileo or GPS on their own terms, but by essentially piggy-backing off of OneWeb’s thousands-strong LEO constellation.

To be sure, Britain having its own satellite navigation system based off of a low-Earth orbit constellation of thousands of satellites would set it far apart from the EU, the US, or Russia – all of which have opted for more conventional GPS-like systems of between 20 and 30 satellites in a higher orbit.

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Galileo scientist

The UK is no longer able to participate in the EU’s Galileo programme. (Image: Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty)

And if the UK’s system went ahead in this way, it would have inherent benefits that the other systems would not.

An industry source explained: “The idea [is] that those satellites could not only be used to deliver broadband services, which is what OneWeb’s business was all about, but also potentially would be used to support navigation and timing services as well.

“The advantage of LEO is the fact that because [the satellites are] closer, the signal is going to be much stronger and so that makes it more resilient against any interference or jamming.

“It also means signals might be able to penetrate through walls and things. So there are technical merits in the approach that’s being proposed.”

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OneWeb officials at a conference

OneWeb is thought to be in talks with the government at the moment to find a way forward. (Image: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile for Web Summit / Getty)

However, the system is also not without its risks, the source warned.

“It’s going to require some R&D to be done, and it’s going to take a bit longer. But it is a novel approach that means that we will have a system which will be different from other countries, if we go down that route.”

The main thing, ultimately, is that this route is also said to be cheaper – though there is yet to be an official figure on how much it would cost the government to invest in OneWeb’s service or buy a stake in the firm. The Financial Times puts it at around $1 billion. has approached OneWeb and the Ministry of Defence for comment.

A galileo rocket launch

Onlookers watch as four Galileo satellites take off in 2018. (Image: AFP / Getty)

GPS, Galileo, and other satellite navigation systems work by beaming location data to devices such as a mobile phone.

Trigonometry dictates that a phone needs to be able to pick up signals from around 4 satellites at once in order to get a fix on its position.

If satellites are far away, which they are in GPS or equivalent systems, then relatively few satellites are needed in orbit because they can ‘see’ more of the Earth to deliver the service.

communications satellite above Earth

Satellite navigation systems like GPS and Galileo tend to use high orbits and relatively few satellites. (Image: enot-poloskun / Getty)

Generally, GPS systems need between 20 and 30 satellites in orbit to achieve proper coverage.

In LEO, however, satellites are much closer to the Earth, and so the amount of Earth they can cover is a lot less.

The simple – and expensive – solution to this is to simply add a bunch more satellites into the LEO constellation.

Published at Thu, 02 Jul 2020 05:57:00 +0000