Long known for its scientific creativity and skilled workforce, the Czech capital is redefining itself as a hub for space technology. Europe’s long-awaited launch of its own geo-positioning system is adding to the city’s momentum.
After 17 years of development and more than €10 billion, Europe’s own geo-positioning system, Galileo, is finally going live. Compared to its US and Russian counterparts, Galileo is expected to provide greater accuracy for users equipped with mass-market devices containing the system’s chipset. Once Galileo is fully deployed in 2020, it will include 30 satellites – 27 operational and three spares – assuring that the loss of one satellite will not affect users. Only China’s system will have more satellites (35) when global access is offered in 2020.
Galileo comes as the market for global positioning continues to expand. From today’s estimated four billion users, the market is expected to increase 18% by 2019. The growing reliance on the satellite technology has major economic implications. According to the European Commission, 6-7% of Europe’s GDP – approximately €800 billion – depends on satellite navigation.
“The Internet of Things is everywhere, connecting smartphones, tablets and industrial and home appliances, and making roads, cities, factories and appliances smarter”, says Carlo des Dorides, executive director of the Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (GSA). “Galileo brings better accuracy and availability due to its signal strength in difficult environments like cities.” The sectors that will benefit most directly from Galileo – named after the 17th-century Italian scientist – are air, sea and road transport.
In 2012, the GSA moved from Brussels to Prague. “It was an opportunity to enhance Czech prestige as a technologically advanced country and to boost local business”, says des Dorides.
The launch of the European satellite system has been welcomed by earth scientists. “For climate change, it is important that the system work for a long time, to avoid misinterpreting the data”, says Ole Baltazar Andersen, a climate-change researcher at DTU – Technical University of Denmark.
Although sea levels are widely understood to be rising, short-term data may have wrongly sent a confusing message. “In some places like California, sea levels were seen to be dropping because we only had a short data period, leading some people to believe that sea levels globally were decreasing”, says Andersen. “But if you can observe data over many years, you can see the underlying trend.”
Andersen is a geodesist, measuring and monitoring the Earth’s size and shape. Arctic icemelts, he says, cause changes in the shape of the earth because ice behaves like a sponge, absorbing water. Variations can be better monitored through enhanced satellite systems, such as Galileo.
As a Euro-centric system, Galileo also offers better coverage at higher latitudes, unlike the American GPS. “In terms of its latitudes America ends half way through Europe”, Andersen explains.
Space is business
Development of Europe’s space technology has found ripe ground in Prague, where labour costs remain relatively low. Karel Dobeš, government commissioner for the collaboration with GSA, says that the European agency’s arrival was “a signal for Czech companies”, especially those involved in navigation and mobility.
Understanding that the country’s most important resources were its citizens’ creativity and knowledge, the government identified space technology as a sector in which such skills could find a home, giving the country an edge over other small economies.
“The future is space”, Dobeš says. “But it is also autonomous cars and robotics”, areas where the Czech economy has already had a history of development and production. Since the beginning of the country’s economic liberalization in the 1990s, however, changing public attitudes toward science has been slow. Dobeš says it took the Czech Republic several years to understand that, “Space is not science – space is technology and business.”
After joining the European Space Agency (ESA), the Czech Republic increased its contribution to the agency from €5 million to over €30 million for 2017. According to Marek Aldorf, director of the ESA Business Incubator Centre in Prague, some 85% of the Czech Republic’s ESA contributions will find their way back to the Czech economy. While the government has begun to support start-ups through the centre, Dobeš hopes that the country will soon establish its own space agency, which would further boost the domestic sector.
Foreign companies meanwhile have also been drawn to the Czech Republic. Valeo, a French automotive company is planning to build a €22 million centre in Prague to develop driverless technology, while General Electric has a project to build turbojet engines in the country.
By Paula Dupraz-Dobias @chocolatpaula
Searching for bright ideas
The Prague ESA Business Incubator Centre is the first such facility supported by the European Space Agency. Its mission is to support start-ups that could have practical applications in space technology.
“In the past, space technology here was only military, and since the 1990s mainly academic”, director Marek Aldorf explains, recalling the sector’s focus during the Cold War. “Now we expect a more than average number of start-ups to focus on satellite navigation”, says Aldorf. The centre’s first projects include a variety of developers involved in space-related software and hardware.
NG Aviation is focusing on the development of software for airport management systems to improve aviation safety and reduce the environmental impact of inefficient landings, take-offs and taxiing. Most airports are not yet digitised, offering the developers a potentially large market.
Festka, a start-up created by a group of cyclists, is building bicycle frames with a light carbon fibre used in aerospace.
InsightArt is employing X-ray imaging as on the International Space Station to analyse art for authentication and restoration.
BigTerra is using satellite and other data to help farmers in developing countries protect their crops from pests and weather.