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Can the UK Build Its Own GNSS?

Posted By Roger McKinlay, 14 May 2018
Updated: 06 June 2018

Recent comments in the newspapers regarding Brexit, Galileo and the UK “going it alone” reveal some old-fashioned thinking about GNSS. These systems are still thought of as big military systems in a rather unhelpful cold war-like way.


Better than Galileo?

For example, one question is already being asked. “Would a shiny new UK system be better than Galileo or GPS?” A good question. Galileo was being sold as shinier and newer than GPS from the outset.

Any organisation which has found itself in a position of deep incumbency knows the issue well. Systems which have yet to happen can claim to be anything; existing systems are kept down to earth by a track record, warts and all.

Yet for GNSS the argument is already outdated. Technical performance is only one issue. Other attributes – sovereignty, security and ownership – have come to the fore. The GNSS market has grown up.

Service not System

And this is where service thinking has taken over from system thinking. GPS is not “old fashioned” any more than British Airways or KLM are old fashioned airlines. Satellite service providers continually renew their fleets the same way that airlines do. (Ask the US taxpayer what it costs to keep GPS up to date.)

So, what of disruption? Ironically, the big disruption has already happened in GNSS with the creation of Galileo. The disruption came not from the technology (despite early claims to the contrary) but the fundamental idea itself.

And this is the key point about a UK GNSS. No new great disruption is being claimed. The emergence of new GNSS systems simply reflects the market maturing. The sovereignty genie is out of the bottle and unlikely to go back in.

Suits not White Coats

However, old ideas take a while to shift. The technical issues still dominate many people’s thinking. The news of the launch of a new airline does not bring to mind a bunch of entrepreneurs trying to assemble their own Wright Flyer and – with a suitably aggressive schedule – producing something Dreamliner-size a few weeks later. The image is absurd. Yet when it comes to satellites and space, there is still a tendency to see everything as a race between boffins.

In the case of mature markets its more about finding the money, buying the right bits and knowing how to launch a service. So, a better image might be people in suits, not white coats. Just consider the airline board meeting at which Emirates decided to place an order for another thirty-plus A380s. That’s some business case!

Tags:  EU  galileo  space 

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