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UK GNSS: boldy going?

By GeoConnexion - 1st July 2020 - 14:56

Born out of a Brexit stalemate, Britain’s proposed alternative to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system seems to be stuck on the launch pad. Does this signal the end, or a fresh beginning? GeoConnexion looks at the evidence

One of the penalties of Brexit became apparent early in 2018 when it emerged that the UK – as a “third country” - would have only limited access to the Public Regulated Service (PRS) of the Galileo satellite positioning system. Intended for use by government agencies, the armed forces and emergency services, this encrypted, high accuracy element of Galileo is an important component of an EU project to which Britain had contributed the best part of €1.5 billion over 25 years. The UK also hosted one of two Galileo Security Monitoring Centres at Swanwick in Hampshire, as well as two Galileo Sensor Stations located in British Overseas Territories.

A particular sticking point in the negotiations was that British industry would be frozen out of further work on a project for which Surrey Satellite Technologies has provided the navigation payloads and atomic clocks. It was Malvern-based Qinetiq, in partnership with Belgium’s Septentrio that developed the device that received the first PRS signal. Similarly, London-based CGI UK designed the core of the ground infrastructure that controls the 30-satellite Galileo constellation and manages the commercial and public sector encryption keys.

With negotiations proving fruitless, and based on preliminary work conducted in 2017, the Government began to talk-up the prospect of a home-grown GNSS. This was followed, in August 2018 with the announcement a £92 million, 18-month feasibility study into its design and development.

Spearheaded by the UK Space Agency and supported by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the study would deliver a detailed technical assessment and schedule of a UK global positioning system that provided both civilian and encrypted signals. A sovereign system would, it was claimed, avoid an estimated £1 billion daily loss to the UK economy in the event of a sustained disruption to satellite navigation signals. And while compatible with GPS, it would provide Britain’s armed forces with an independent weapons guidance capability.

Exploring alternatives

In announcing the move, former Prime Minister Theresa May, reiterated the UK’s commitment to Europe’s collective security post-Brexit, but added, “Given the Commission’s decision to bar the UK from being fully involved in developing all aspects of Galileo it is only right that we find alternatives.

I cannot let our Armed Services depend on a system we cannot be sure of. That would not be in our national interest. “

The then Business Secretary Greg Clark added his support. “Britain has the skills, expertise and commitment to create our own sovereign satellite system and I am determined that we take full advantage of the opportunities this brings, backed by our modern Industrial Strategy,” Within a matter of weeks, newly-elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson was singing from the same hymn sheet. “Let’s get going now on our own position, navigation and timing satellite and Earth Observation systems … UK assets orbiting in space, with all the long-term strategic and commercial benefits for this country.” A copy of the MoD’s long-awaited defence space strategy, leaked to The Times in May 2019, was said to “enthusiastically” endorse the move.

However, it was not long before the implications of this intention generated a chorus of negative comments, some appalled at the estimated £3-5 billion cost of realising a medium Earth orbit constellation of around two dozen satellite over a ten-year build phase, and others by what seemed little more than a vanity project – after all, the MoD already enjoyed licenced access to the encrypted GPS signal.

Less costly options were also on offer, with academics from Sussex University proposing a Satellite Based Augmentation System payload piggybacking on Britain’s Skynet military communications satellite. This arrangement would provide a Navigation Overlay Service (NOS) similar to the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) and, together with ground infrastructure, could be delivered in just one year at a cost of £300 million.

All objections and alternatives were brushed aside in the fevered atmosphere surrounding Brexit, with former MI6 chief, Sir Richard Dilmot, senior defence advisor Professor Gwythian Prins, and ex-Chief of the Defence Staff, Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, all pitching-in to support the government proposal. According to Downing Street, more than 50 UK companies had expressed interest in the project by the end of 2018 and that ‘a series of key contracts are now being tendered’. The then Science Minister Chris Skidmore added that the first satellites would be launched by 2025 and the system fully delivered by 2030.

Second thoughts

18 months on, and with whispers of a Cabinet Office review into the feasibility of the whole endeavour, it seems that second thoughts are taking hold. Reports of a six-month “pause” have surfaced in the mainstream media, with claims that Civil Service head Sir Mark Sedwill had branded the project “unrealistic and unaffordable” and that a cheaper, albeit less sovereign alternative was under consideration. Responding to a request by GeoConnexion, the UK Space Agency has simply confirmed that the engineering, design and development phase (EDDP) is ‘ongoing’.

It was always going to be tricky finding £5 billion in Britain’s post-Brexit finances to compete with tier-1 spacefaring nations. Add to this the enormous financial burden of dealing with COVID-19, and the case to scrap the project or find a more affordable alternative has become ever more attractive.

So should Britain lower its sights and rely purely on encrypted GPS for its defence and security needs? Reopen negotiations with Brussels for access to and industry participation in Galileo PRS? Settle for a regional GNSS such as India’s NavIC or Japan’s QZSS? Or develop a tactical GNSS platform for rapid in-theatre deployment as and where needed?

As we went to press, reports surfaced of a possible £500 million government stake in OneWeb, the London-based satellite operator that already has 74 of a planned 650 Ku and Ka Band communications satellites in Low Earth Orbit. The company. Which filed for bankruptcy in March, claims it would be able to deliver a military and civilian GNSS capability – as well as broadband - when the constellation is fully operational next year.

A fresh beginning?

Whatever the outcome of this hiatus, there are those, like Stuart Martin, CEO of the Satellite Applications Catapult, who told the Financial Times earlier this year that it could offer a fresh beginning, “This is an opportunity to do something that goes well beyond Galileo. If we do this it will give us an immediate export opportunity and we would be adding to the systems already there.”

That suggestion endorsed a key finding of the Blackett Review, convened by the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, which published its findings in 2018. In looking at the dependency of the critical national infrastructure on satellite-derived timing and positioning, it noted that ‘While the availability of additional constellations such as Galileo will reduce dependence on GPS, and bring improved performance, it will not be revolutionary and the problems posed by different sources of interference remain.’

Hopefully, some answers will be forthcoming at this year’s Military PNT Conference, to be held in London in October*, and where the UK Space Agency GNSS Team is scheduled to update delegates on the options for assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) services and exploring the technical and security challenges of a UK GNSS. Also on the opening day, Mark Lynch from UK Strategic Command will be delivering a keynote on the MoD’s R-GNS programme (see section headed ‘Looking for better reception’)


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