Galileo: How Europe's answer to GPS will revolutionise your phone

Galileo explained
Every Galileo satellite is named after a child from an EU nation. Thijs (Belgium) and Natalia (Bulgaria) were first to launch

Where would we be without GPS, eh? In a ditch, probably. Since GPS swooped into our cars and phones like little angels with solar array wings, we've become so reliant on its technology that it's nearly impossible to imagine life without it.

Except of course, that the European Union has been planning for life without GPS for some time now.

GPS is operated and owned by the US and the EU has decided that being completely reliant on another country's GPS system would leave them vulnerable if they and the US ever fell out.

That's why they're currently launching the first few of what will, when completed by 2019, be a 30-strong swarm of satellites. Collectively, they're known as Galileo - Europe's answer to the GPS.

But while Galileo has emerged largely due to politics, it will offer tangible benefits for you and your pocket, too. Simply put, it will mean stronger signals and better coverage, leading to a more accurate and more reliable service.


Galileo consists of 27 active satellites and three spares, who jump in when needed [Photo credit: ESA]

Galileo can offer this because of a range of cutting edge features, of which none are more important than its Space Passive Hydrogen Masers - some of the world's most accurate atomic clocks.

Satnav receivers work out their position by timing the signals sent out by the satellites high above. An error of just a billionth of a second results in a 30cm error range.

Galileo's clocks are accurate to less than one nanosecond per 24 hours, meaning it can pinpoint your location to within a metre. GPS' margin of error can be ten times greater. So when you're lost on foot in an unfamiliar city, Galileo will be ten times less likely to lead you astray.

Galileo's satellites also soar at a higher altitude than GPS', meaning they have a wider cone of vision and thus there's more chance of you being within range of the four satellites needed for the satnav receiver to figure out its position – which is helpful if you're exploring a remote area.


Galileo and GPS are designed to co-exist. When Galileo is fully operation by 2020, satnav systems will be more accurate than ever [Photo credit: ESA]

The higher altitude also means that Galileo can provide coverage to the northern tip of Europe - which isn't currently served at all by GPS.

Perhaps most notably, Galileo is serviced by several ground stations, with which Galileo is capable of two-way communication. This could make Galileo a valuable search and rescue tool.

The satellites could pick up a distress beacon in a remote area, for example, ping its exact co-ordinates to one of the ground units - which could then send a message back to the beacon informing them that help is on the way.

The ability to upload and download chunks of data will likely see Galileo bring in a new wave of location-specific features to your Galileo-enabled mobile phone.

Tourists will be able to receive information on their surroundings, and be directed to the nearest cash machines. 'Guardian Angel' apps will be able to reunite parents and children when they become separated. And it could revolutionise the transport industry, with pilots being able to plot their own routes and altitude.


Galileo's swarm of satellites are kept healthy by two control stations and 40 sensor stations, who monitor their performance [Photo credit: ESA]

So, what do you need to do to prepare for Galileo? You've got a bit of time to put the kettle on and have a cuppa, to be honest.

Galileo is still several years away from completion, and even if you somehow don't upgrade your phone/satnav between now and 2019, you'll still be able to use it as you do now, as the old signals will still be broadcast.

You'll have to upgrade if you want the features that are being introduced by Galileo and the competing GPS III update, though.

Finally, the thorny issue: will I have to pay for it? Well, if you're a European Union taxpayer you already have been, but the good news is the basic service will be free.

Service providers intend to charge extra for 'commercial navigation: an encrypted, guaranteed service that offers increased accuracy and allows users to upload small chunks of data.

Alex Dale is the Deputy Editor of a brand new science magazine, Science Uncovered, brought to you by Future Publishing, which also publishes TechRadar. Science Uncovered will be available in all good newsagents from November 21. Download a free sample issue at

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