They guide drivers to their destination, provide "You are here" arrows on online maps and improve the safety of air and sea travel: satellite location and navigation ("sat nav") services have become part of everyday life, thanks to Global Positioning System (GPS) technology being widely available for vehicles and smartphones.
Originally developed in the United States for defence applications, back in the 1970s, GPS services became available to civilians in the 1990s. The technology is based on the user's receiver picking up precisely timed radio signals from orbiting satellites, and calculating its distance from each source.
Since the signals also communicate the position of each satellite in its orbit, the device can combine the information to pinpoint the location of the user in three dimensions. The precise time signals from the constellation of satellites - 32 in total for GPS - can also provide accurate time and synchronisation data for mobile phones and networks.
The Europe Union is currently launching 30 satellites for its own Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), called Galileo, but the EU and US are not the only players. Many other countries and regions are developing sat nav systems: GLONASS in Russia, IRNSS from India, BeiDou in China and QZSS from Japan.
More than half of the mobile phones in Europe and the US now include satellite positioning. And, according to the European GNSS Agency (GSA), the sat nav market continues to grow rapidly, with 2 billion GNSS devices installed globally by 2013.
The GSA expects the global market to reach €250 billion by 2022, as the installed base of GNSS devices more than triples to 7 billion. European companies are strong in telecoms and rail infrastructure, as well as car and antenna manufacturing, and most of this growth will be outside the EU and US, so there are huge opportunities available if European innovation can keep pace.
In 2013, the EPO received more than 13 500 patent applications across all digital communications and telecommunications fields, e.g. because of the boom in smartphone and network technogies. Innovation in satellite navigation now represents a significant proportion of these, with a total of more than 3200 sat nav-based European patent applications published so far.
Nowadays, most drivers use sat nav, whether built into their vehicles or in separate devices. Surveyors use satellite positioning for road building and settling land-use claims, while geologists and archaeologists can make more detailed maps than ever before.
Sat nav technology has been extended to aviation and shipping, and cyclists and runners can use it to keep track of their training routes. Photographers can even have the precise spot where they take each picture recorded and coded with the image.
As satellite positioning has been added to new devices such as smartphones and tablets, GPS or GNSS data is combined with other information to enable Location-Based Services (LBS). By 2013, there were more than 700 000 LBS-based apps for each of the Apple and Android platforms. The GSA estimates that 40% of all apps use location information - such as ‘augmented reality' applications that overlay localised information on to images of the real world.
The commercial GPS chipset that helped to popularise satellite navigation services, by making them cheaper and more reliable, won Sanjai Kohli and Steven Chen a European Inventor Award in 2010. Prior to their invention, GPS receivers were large and expensive, relying on signals from three or four satellites. By developing and miniaturising ‘asynchronous signal processing', their research team produced microchips that could ‘fill in the blanks' when only one satellite signal was available, and that could be mass produced for consumer devices.
Nominated for a European Inventor Award in 2007, Hakan Lans patented a navigation system that makes the aviation and maritime industries safer and allows for more efficient routes. The Self-Organised Time-Division Multiple Access (STDMA) data link allows satellite-positioning data - more accurate than radar - to be shared among aeroplanes, ships, air traffic control and coastguards.
More recently, the 2013 European Satellite Navigation Competition was won by the start-up, Kinexon. As the company's CEO, Dr Alexander Hüttenbrink, explains in the film above, their patent-pending system uses multiple small sensors acting like satellites and nearby base stations for high-precision indoor localisation. By applying these techniques to sport, trainers can follow and replay their players' movements. With 3D centimetre-level accuracy, the system could also be used in hospitals and care homes, where it could even detect when a patient falls.
The GSA projects annual shipments of GNSS-enabled devices in the EU to reach more than 600 million by 2022, with LBS and road applications accounting for the largest market share. Agricultural applications, such as tractor guidance and automatic steering, will also drive growth.
New regulations for greater road, sea and air safety, whether at the European, national or international level, will also increase demand for GNSS services: the EU's Digital Tachograph initiative aims to ensure safe rest periods for truck drivers, while the eCall system will automatically send data to emergency services in the event of an accident. Environmental and safety concerns will also push applications in traffic monitoring, road-use charging, Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) or pay-per-use vehicle sharing and insurance.
Innovation in this sector seems to be on the right road, and thanks to GNSS, we need never lose our way.
Kinexon's CEO, Dr Alexander Hüttenbrink, explains how their system uses multiple small sensors acting like satellites for high-precision localisation indoors - with applications for sports coaching or in hospitals.
Cumulative core revenue 2012-2022