The Revolution in Transportation Affairs

by Stephen Bryen
Presented by SDB Partners LLC

It got started on the wrong foot, the program has been delayed, the costs of the program have grown, and at moments the United States correctly saw it as a potential threat, but the European GPS program, called Galileo, now looks like it will go ahead.


Galileo is a European version of the U.S. GPS system.  It was initially offered to the European public as an alternative to the U.S. program on the grounds that the U.S. GPS satellites are operated by the U.S. Air Force while the European consortium would essentially be under the authority of the civilian-led European Space Agency.  Euro-leaders touted the idea that the U.S. could not turn off the GPS signals at a time of emergency and that civilian leadership was better than military.  For a time U.S. policy makers tried their best to kill the Galileo project but more recently agreements have been reached allowing Galileo to be compatible with the U.S. GPS constellation.

Even the U.S. GPS project has turned out to be something far different than originally envisaged.  At its start in the 1970’s, the U.S. GPS was a taxpayer-financed military project. GPS would support military systems and only incidentally be of commercial interest.

The problem with the idea is that the development of the GPS satellite network took place at the same time as the revolution in microelectronics and microprocessors.  What might have previously required a large, rack mounted electronics box could now be concentrated on a handful of microchips. Today, for a dollar you can buy GPS chips in small quantities, and pay even less if you buy in the thousands.  The microprocessor revolution has made it possible to put a GPS unit in a car for $50 and in a cellphone for virtually no added cost to the consumer.

Consequently, the dominant users of GPS today are every-man and every-woman.  If you want to, and your kids cooperate, you can know where you kids are at any moment, where the nearest hospital is, or the location of a famous monument.  Thanks to digital maps, you can navigate to any place you can find on the map within 25 feet, sometimes better.  This can be improved (but not for low cost applications) with various augmentation systems.  The U.S. has a nationwide National Differential GPS system which combines ground and ocean stations with satellites to achieve higher accuracy. (There is also a special augmentation system for aircraft.)

Galileo offers accuracy equal to the augmentation systems but without the high cost, maintenance, and support. 

The European GPS system’s accuracy is achieved by a special atomic clock that was developed for space applications by a small team in Italy working for Selex Galileo, part of the Finmeccanica group.  The special clock has been successfully tested on board the Giove-B test satellite, a systems demonstrator platform for the Galileo satellite network.  The device is called a Hydrogen MASER Atomic Clock.  MASER stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. 

The clock inside the U.S. GPS uses a rubidium clock which loses around 3 seconds in 1 million years.  By contrast, the Hydrogen MASER clock will lose 1 second in 3 million years, or around 10 nanoseconds per day.  In Galileo there are four clocks in each satellite (2 active, 2 backup)– 2 Hydrogen MASER and 2 Rubidium.

Hydrogen MASER Atomic Clock Team


So why do we need a clock accurate to 1 second in 3 million years?  Because the clock, along with other improvements, allows the satellite to provide accuracy to cheap hand held or mounted GPS/Galileo receivers at less than 12 inches (11.8 inches or 30 cm).

When Galileo technology is linked to a new generation of mapping technology there are very significant benefits.  To begin with, it is now possible to automate and control highway traffic because traffic spacing can accurately be managed and speeds adjusted and regulated to permit highway to operate far more efficiently.  Sequencing of traffic has been tried before, but has been based on very simple parameters and only in limited environments, such as “holding” and “dispatching” vehicles entering roadways.  Galileo’s clock opens up a new field of regulation that by making highways more efficient will save billions in road construction and allow entrances and exits to have smart management. 

A second technology that will compliment the new generation of GPS receiver is the accurate mapping of roadway beds using synthetic aperture radar-based maps (SAR). Most of the U.S. has already been mapped using SAR-equipped aircraft.  The idea is to find the actual height from sea level of road beds and to communicate that information to a vehicle’s computer.  In this way the engine and transmission of the vehicle can automatically and seamlessly adjust fuel burn and transmission gearing to optimize the use of fuel.  Independently, cars with the maps “inside” the vehicles GPS and computer could save 5% fuel or more.  Combined with GPS traffic management, the savings in fuel and in time will be even more dramatic.

The Hydrogen MASER Atomic Clock


While it got off on the wrong foot, the European Galileo system and SAR-based maps offer to significantly improve highway traffic and reduce wasting fuel and time.  In turn this will improve the productivity time of workers, which is lost when vehicles are tied up in traffic, and expedite the delivery of goods and materials at lower cost thanks to less lost time.

In emergencies, one can easily imagine more efficient management of vehicles in crisis situations, since these systems reside in vehicles and do not need to depend on the power grid.

Progress has been made between Europe and the U.S. to the dicey security questions risen by GPS and the misuse of GPS technology by potential adversaries and terrorists. Clearly we are on the brink of a revolution in transportation affairs.
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