After a long and much-delayed 17-year gestation, Europe's answer to America's GPS system has been switched on.
The Galileo network will offer a free service with an accuracy of one metre, and can pinpoint locations down to a few centimetres for paying customers. The service has 18 satellites in orbit, with 30 projected by 2020 at the latest.
"Geo-localisation is at the heart of the ongoing digital revolution with new services that transform our daily lives," said Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission.
"Galileo will increase geo-location precision ten-fold and enable the next generation of location-based technologies; such as autonomous cars, connected devices, or smart city services. Today I call on European entrepreneurs and say: imagine what you can do with Galileo – don't wait, innovate."
Galileo's high level of accuracy comes from the four precise atomic clocks each satellite holds, which will only lose one second in three million years. When a device hears from four of the satellites, it can work out its location down to a few centimeters.
It's that accuracy that almost killed the program. Galileo was proposed in 1999 and almost immediately the US objected to the scheme, fearing it could be used by terrorists to plan attacks. America was also worried that the signals couldn't be jammed without also blocking its own GPS system.
After years of negotiations and technical discussions, a compromise was reached. Galileo can be blocked for civilian use in an emergency, but still provide military and government users access via an encrypted data flow.
The next hurdle was funding. Galileo was budgeted at a little under €4bn and was supposed to be funded by a public/private partnership. But as costs rose and launches were delayed, the EU was forced to act in 2007 and provide most of the funds itself, as well as taking on other partners like India and China.
There are only two smartphones on sale that are already Galileo ready: the BQ Aquaris X5 Plus and the Huawei Mate 9. But chipsets from Intel, Broadcom, Mediatek, and Qualcomm are Galileo approved, so if you've a handset running a Snapdragon 652, 650, 617, 435, 625 or 820 processor then the positioning system can be accessed once switched on.
In addition, all cars sold in the EU must have a chipset capable of accessing Galileo signals. The network is also going to be critical for the development of an international emergency locating system called Cospas-Sarsat.
"Galileo offering initial services is a major achievement for Europe and a first delivery of our recent Space Strategy," said European Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska, responsible for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs.
"This is the result of a concerted effort to design and build the most accurate satellite navigation system in the world. It demonstrates the technological excellence of Europe, its know-how and its commitment to delivering space-based services and applications. No single European country could have done it alone." ®