Qioptiq logo Raytheon Global MilSatCom

UK Galileo Alternative – Now Go and Get On With It By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.






A clearly well informed press report in the Sunday Telegraph over the weekend tells us that the Treasury has now signed off commitments to fund in the region of £92 million to enable mapping out of plans for a UK developed alternative satellite navigation system to Galileo to begin. An announcement is expected later this week.

Given the situation that the UK has regrettably found itself in together with the hugely disappointing attitude and approach reportedly taken by the EU in regard of our continuing to have full post Brexit access to the Galileo satellite system it is pleasing to note that the UK Government has acted fast in putting in place a funded plan for a sovereign based alternative to both the existing US based GPS system and the EU’s Galileo.

With the UK having reportedly already invested EUR1.4 billion in the design and construction of Galileo, money that if we are no longer allowed to have access to the system one presumes the UK will get back, my personal view on this is that the EU may ultimately regret its decision to deny UK access to Galileo. It will, for instance, be interesting to observe what happens when UK developed technology for Galileo is called into question or delayed. Indeed, by taking the attitude it has the EU could find that the Galileo programme development itself is set back by several years.

So be it and whilst the UK probably had an option to join forces with other countries such as the US I believe that given the growing uncertainty in geo-politics it is absolutely right that the UK dominates development of an alternative system.

What the Government is expected to announce later this week is, as far as I am aware, to be regarded as merely Treasury funding for a plan that will eventually lead to development of our own system. For a system such as would need to be envisaged and whose development costs alone could run to well in excess of £2 billion, the UK will most probably seek international partners to come in to consortium based project development and one that will include industry.

The UK space industry has a long history of success and employs in the region of 15,000 people across the county. Airbus is one of the big players in UK space and the number of people employed in this vital national interest area is expected to double over the next few years. A recent report published by UKspace envisaged a doubling of size of the UK space industry post Brexit and the trade association took the view that the UK should focus its national effort on four prioritised markets which include:

Earth Information Services – a market UK Space anticipates to be worth £20 billion in coming years, with an emphasis on “real-time global awareness, navigation, analytics and security for the advanced data economy.

Connectivity Services – this is loosely described as being about delivery of broadband and 5G for everyone – at home and on the move, on the road, in the air or at sea, anywhere around the globe”. The reports suggested that the emphasis should be on low orbit satellites.

Space Robotics – this to include new applications for science, enterprise and consumers.

Low Cost Access to Space – this being about an approach to maximise the value of the UK’s spaceports and launch from the UK, a £10 billion forecast market, making the UK a home for low-cost launch services and developing platform technologies to promote even lower cost access to space.

Worth around £15 billion currently, the UK was in 2015 estimated to have around a 6.5% share of the global space market – a market that is not surprisingly dominated by Russia, China, India and America.

Airbus Defence and Space which apparently supplies 25% of the world’s telecommunications satellites and which at Stevenage has a long history of success in the design and manufacture of advanced telecommunications satellites and systems, earth observation, and navigation and science programmes. The technology produced by Airbus in Stevenage support the primary UK military satellite communications service for the UK armed forces, including mobile voice, video, Internet and broadcast communications. Delivered through the Skynet 5 constellation, these services also meet the needs of other military and government users like NATO.

Smaller companies such as Earth Sense have developed a system called Mappair using satellite data to produce an HD map of air pollution. BAE Systems along with Boeing and Rolls-Royce are all invested in Oxfordshire based company Reaction Engines which is working on the next generation of hypersonic flight and orbital space craft. Other UK organisations that have enjoyed considerable success in the UK space sector Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) which is majority owned by Airbus has pioneered operation and build of small satellites and is one of the most highly regarded and innovative UK based organisation engaged in space engineering and has as far as I know been involved building 22 payloads for the Galileo navigation service, with a further 12 more on the way.

Inmarsat, Avanti amongst others including of course, Thales Alenia Space-UK, a joint venture between Thales and Leonardo and being part of a large European entity that is considered one of the world’s leading designers of telecommunications satellites, platforms and payloads together with a great many smaller UK based space technology players not to ignore either the fast growing space-cluster at Harwell in Oxfordshire demonstrate that the UK is an important and fast growing player in space technology.

Back to Galileo and the UK Space Agency believes that such is the strength of the UK space industry, skills and expertise that by going ahead with plans to develop and alternative to Galileo now the UK could even have a head-start on the EU. That may or may not be true although we should not get carried away into believing that we can produce everything we need here in the UK. However, the point is well made and as the replacement system would be built to specifications of maybe only one country rather than having to meet requirements of each and every one of the other soon to be only 27 EU member states creates significant advantage.

That the UK already has much of the capability needed to design, develop and build a replacement satellite navigation system to Galileo can be put down to the fact that so much of this has been developed due to our involvement in the development of Galileo. What happens in regard of any future role in Galileo by UK companies presumably remains to be resolved although in May this year I understand that the UK Space Agency wrote to 13 firms involved to remind them that they need security authorisation to engage in any future contracts on the EU’s Galileo system.

Just in case you need to be reminded, this is what the European Commission/European Space Agency Galileo satellite navigation system is designed to ultimately comprise:

Promising eventual real-time positioning down to a metre or less, a total of 24 individual satellites will constitute a full system although I believe that it is planned that there will in addition be six spare satellites in orbit. The original budget for Galileo was EUR3bn but estimates suggest that the figure will be at least three times greater than this. Spacecraft have been launched in batches of two, but now go up four at a time

CHW (London – 28th August 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon





Back to article list