UK plans sat-nav system to rival EU's Galileo

Satellite orbiting earth

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European Space Agency

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The European Union has put together Galileo as its own network of satellites

Britain is planning to build its own space satellite-navigation system to rival the EU’s Galileo project, the prime minister has announced.

Galileo is the EU’s upcoming version of the United States’ GPS, which is used by millions of people around the world.

The UK had wanted to stay part of Galileo after Brexit, but the EU said it would be banned from the extra-secure elements of the programme.

On Friday, Theresa May said the UK was pulling out of these restricted parts.

She said the British army – which had been planning to use Galileo along with the US GPS – will no longer use it.

The UK will instead explore options to build its own satellite navigation system. The government has already set aside £92m to look at how it can be done.

“I cannot let our armed services depend on a system we cannot be sure of,” Mrs May said. “That would not be in our national interest.

“And as a global player with world-class engineers and steadfast allies around the world we are not short of options.”

What is Galileo?

Many people’s sat-navs and mobile location services currently run on a US military-based system called GPS – global positioning system – which uses satellites to pinpoint our locations. China and Russia also have satellite-navigation positioning systems.

In 1999, the European Union embarked on a plan to put together its own network of satellites, called Galileo, so it was not reliant on the US, Russian and Chinese systems.

The first satellites were put into orbit in 2013 and it is planned to be fully operational in 2020 with 30 satellites orbiting earth. The technology will be used by EU governments, citizens, military and industry.

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European Space Agency

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Galileo satellites are now launching on Europe’s premier rocket, the Ariane 5

All EU member states will be allowed access to it – including the “public regulated service” (PRS) part of Galileo, which is the secret inner workings and is due to be completed in the mid-2020s.

This can only be used by government-authorised users like police and only during emergencies or crisis situations.

While GPS is accurate to within about 20 metres, Galileo is designed to improve that, to around one metre.

Why did the UK and EU disagree over it?

The UK has been a key player in the Galileo project. The UK has spent 1.4bn euros (£1.2bn) on the project, according to a report in April.

UK companies have built components for Galileo and one of the project’s two Galileo Security Monitoring Centres was based in the UK, in Swanwick. The site is now being relocated to Spain.

In May 2018, the UK’s Department for Exiting the European Union said it wanted to continue participating in Galileo.

But the EU said that the restricted and security-related part of the system – PRS, which is of particular interest for the military – is only for EU members and, after Brexit, the UK will not be allowed access.

The EU said the UK would not be allowed to be trusted with the EU’s most sensitive security information after Brexit.

In June 2018, UK companies were excluded from bidding for contracts on the satellite system.

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Media captionWhy is there a row about Galileo?

What has the UK government announced?

On Friday evening, Downing Street said the UK will no longer seek access to secure aspects of Galileo for defence or critical infrastructure after Brexit.

Instead, the UK Space Agency is looking into creating Britain’s own system that can be used to guide military drones, run energy networks and be used on people’s smartphones. Contracts are being tendered.

Any system will provide both open and encrypted signals and must be compatible with the US GPS system in case one is attacked.

“I have been clear from the outset that the UK will remain firmly committed to Europe’s collective security after Brexit,” the PM said.

“But 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.

Number 10 said the UK is a “world-leader in developing satellite technology”, adding that “Glasgow builds more satellites than any other European city”.

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Media captionUK Space Agency chief executive: ‘We can build its own sat-nav system’

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Space poses a new and increasingly dangerous front for warfare and it is crucial to push ahead with plans for our own world-class, independent satellite system.

“This also gives us an opportunity to draw on British skills and expertise as we leave the EU as a truly leading nation in satellite technology.”

In August, UK ministers set aside £92m to scope out how feasible it would be to create an alternative to Galileo. The programme, the government said, would take approximately 18 months to complete.

What have critics said?

Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, who campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “Brexit was supposed to increase our strength and influence, yet here we are pulling out of a key project of great importance to our national security.

“To compound this disaster, we will have to pay out billions to replace the project,” he said.

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