Government remains in orbit to develop UK sat nav

Despite experts’ doubts, government confirms it will continue to look at a wider range of options for a sovereign satellite navigation and timing capability

Despite deep misgivings across the political spectrum and serious doubts cast by leading members of the satellite community, the UK government has revealed that it will explore new options for a UK satellite navigation and timing capability programme.

In announcing the project, the government said the Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing Programme (SBPP) was part of its plans to support the UK’s critical infrastructure, boosting the country’s “thriving” space industry and expertise, and paving the way for greater independence from foreign systems.

The SBPP will explore new and alternative ways to deliver vital satellite navigation services to the UK, replacing the US-based GPS and the European Union’s Galileo. The UK was part of the latter before Brexit.

Such networks are seen by the government as critical for the functioning of transport systems, energy networks, mobile communications and national security and defence, while boosting the UK’s space industry and developing capabilities in these services.

The SBPP will follow on from the work of the UK’s Global Navigation Satellite System (UK GNSS) programme, which is due to conclude at the end of this month. It is an exploration programme developed to outline plans for a conventional satellite system as an alternative to GPS or Galileo.

A government-backed study from London Economics estimated that sustained disruption to existing satellite navigation capabilities is likely to cost the UK economy £1bn a day. 

The programme will now be reset as the SBPP to build on this work and will consider what the government calls “newer, more innovative ideas” of delivering global sat nav and securing satellite services to meet public, government and industry needs.

As well as supporting traditional applications such as smartphone geographic determinations and technology that supports people’s everyday lives, such as emergency services to locate incidents, financial services companies to regulate exchanges on the UK stock market, or energy networks to ensure households receive power, the government sees satellite navigation systems as necessary to unlocking future technologies such as driverless cars, smart cities and artificial intelligence.

The SBPP will explore the use of different kinds of satellite at various levels of orbit by exploiting technologies offered by companies that the government says are at the cutting edge of innovation, such as Inmarsat, Airbus and OneWeb. Yet it is with satellite technology provider OneWeb that questions have been raised over why such a project should be carried out in the first place.

On 6 July 2020, much to the surprise of many in the communications industry, the government confirmed that as part of a consortium, it and Bharti Airtel would each provide $500m to take ownership of the technically bankrupt OneWeb and deliver the UK’s first sovereign space capability.

Formed in 2012, OneWeb develops what the government claims is “cutting-edge” satellite technology from its bases in the UK and the US. Emulating Elon Musk’s Starlink project, it aims to implement a constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites with a network of global gateway stations and a range of user terminals to provide an affordable, fast, high-bandwidth and low-latency communications service, connected to internet of things (IoT) devices, and a pathway for mass adoption of 5G services.

But in doing so, the government ignored a ministerial direction on 26 June regarding the purchase from Sam Beckett, acting permanent secretary and accounting officer at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, casting doubt on the rationale for the deal.

Beckett’s assessment was that he could not satisfy himself that the investment met official value-for-money requirements. In his letter to secretary of state Alok Sharma, Beckett noted that given the time and data available, the Treasury had not subjected the deal to the scrutiny of a full Green Book-compliant business case, including considering whether alternative options for investment might provide a better return.

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Just over a week days ago, a UK parliamentary committee was told by eminent experts in satellite technology that even though they agreed there was a gold rush going on in space, with the leading actors in communications satellites rushing to deploy commercial crafts, the OneWeb project did not meet the recognised requirements of value for public money.

Key witness Marek Ziebart, professor of space geodesy at University College London, described the current satellite business environment as akin to a mixture of “the Wild West without regulations and the Gold Rush”, but after noting the cutting-edge aspect of the OneWeb offer, he could not specifically say that he saw clear guaranteed returns on the massive investment made by the UK government.

“From the point of view of return on investment, I’m personally not convinced,” he said. “But it does depend on what you’re buying, and what you think you’re going to get in return for your money. Elon Musk’s launch technology is now superior, and he’s demonstrated that by launching 60 satellites – very, very reliably.

“The industrial and technological might that is represented by SpaceX is very hard to compete against, but that’s not to say the race is over. But it’s a costly race, and I think those costs are going to carry on rising and rising. I’m therefore not yet convinced of the value of the return on investment.”

A Cabinet Office study examining the need for a UK space-based system for secure positioning, navigation and timing concluded that more options should be examined and further work was needed to determine what form it should take to provide value for money.

Yet in pressing ahead with the project, business secretary Alok Sharma said: “Through our Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing Programme, we will draw on the strengths of the UK’s already thriving space industry to understand our requirements for a robust and secure satellite navigation system.

“This includes considering low orbiting satellites that could deliver considerable benefits to people and businesses right across the UK, while potentially reducing our dependency on foreign satellite systems.”

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