Image: UK Government
Blog Editor’s Note: The author is President of the RNT Foundation.
News from the British government Thursday appears to be a part of the United Kingdom’s diversification away from primary reliance on GNSS for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services, and toward a more diverse set of sources.
The nation has previously undertaken establishment of a National Timing Centre for distribution of time from suites of atomic clocks and has long transmitted an eLoran timing signal from a government facility in Anthorn.
Thursday’s press release, titled “Government to explore new ways of delivering ‘sat nav’ for the UK,” reinforces the government’s commitment to space-based PNT, but not necessarily from GNSS.
The announcement follows significant criticism in Parliament of the nation’s purchase of a 45% share of the bankrupt communications satellite company OneWeb, with the India’s Bharti Holdings having the majority stake. OneWeb had 74 of its planned 648 satellites in orbit when it declared insolvency. With new ownership and financing in place, it plans to resume operations and launch another 36 satellites in December.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s motivation for making the investment was to offset Britain’s post-Brexit exclusion from Europe’s Galileo system. The idea was that OneWeb assets in low earth orbit (LEO) could provide a global British PNT capability.
This concept faced political and technical opposition from the start. Many technologists in the UK and elsewhere doubted that the constellation could be easily adapted to provide sufficiently accurate PNT services. The doubts were so serious that the senior career civil servant responsible for signing the agreement to invest in OneWeb took the very unusual step of refusing to do so without written direction from the political appointee she worked for.
Before the OneWeb investment, the UK government had been studying establish of its own GNSS like America’s GPS and Europe’s Galileo. Sources say the required investment was much higher than the nation wanted to make and would provide little added capability beyond that available from extant systems.
According to Thursday’s press release, the UK GNSS effort was exploratory and will end this month. It will be “reset” as the Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing Programme (SBPP). This project “will explore new and alternative ways that could be used to deliver vital satellite navigation services to the United Kingdom which are critical for the functioning of transport systems, energy networks, mobile communications and national security and defence, whilst boosting the British space industry and developing the UK’s own capabilities in these services.”
While the press release is short on detail, it does mention satellites at low earth orbit and that “a wider range of options” will be examined. This could suggest redoubling efforts on getting PNT from OneWeb, and/or investing in regional PNT satellites.
The press release also says SBPP will “consider collaboration with international allies to share satellite navigation services, costs and technology.” This may signal reengagement with Europe on involvement with Galileo.
Some observers have said that Brexit did not have to automatically mean that the UK was excluded from the Galileo project. European Union membership is not required for participation in the European Space Agency which is responsible for Galileo. Switzerland and Norway, for example, are not EU members, but are members of ESA and sit on its governing board.
The UK government has been very concerned with PNT and GNSS vulnerability since at last 2012 when large solar flares became part of its National Risk Register. In 2017 a London Economics Report found that a five-day GNSS disruption would cost the nation more than $1.3B per day.
This most recent announcement indicates that Britain is still intent on going its own way and diversifying PNT sources, while still acknowledging the ongoing importance of GNSS and keeping its options open with allies.
Dana Goward is president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. He is the proprietor at Maritime Governance LLC. In August 2013, he retired from the federal Senior Executive Service, having served as the maritime navigation authority for the United States. As director of Marine Transportation Systems for the U.S. Coast Guard, he led 12 different navigation-related business lines budgeted at more than $1.3 billion per year. He has represented the U.S. at IMO, IALA, the UN anti-piracy working group and other international forums. A licensed helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, he has also served as a navigator at sea and is a retired Coast Guard Captain.