José Ángel Ávila is nominated for European Inventor of the Year for his contribution to the European Galileo system, which will try to unseat the American model as of 2020.

Ávila, candidate for the European Inventor of the Year.

The days when GPS (acronym for Global Positioning System) was used only for plotting road trips seems long ago. Today we can know how long the delivery man needs to bring us the pizza, if tomorrow in London it will be worth it to take a taxi or go by tube from the airport depending on the traffic or study the future impact of an oil spill.

GPS is ubiquitous and yet a technology with many years, since it began to develop between 1964 and 1967. In this time, several aspirants have emerged to steal the scepter, because satellite navigation has profound geopolitical implications. Shortly after the appearance of the North American standard, in 1982, Russia launched its own system, GLONASS. After them were China, with BeiDou, and finally Europe, which in December 2016 began the initial phase of the Galileo system.

Unlike all other systems, Galileo will have a civil and non-military use, in part because the United States was concerned about the appearance of this new positioning system. Finally, Europe and the US agreed to share the functions and coordinate both systems in this first phase, in which the GPS will continue to be the reference for the military.

One of Galileo’s strengths compared to its competitors is the signaling technology developed by the Spanish engineer José Ángel Ávila Rodríguez and his French colleague Laurent Lestarquit, both employees at the European Space Agency and candidates for European Inventor of the Year, an annual award delivered by the European Patent Office. In short, Galileo uses radio signals to improve both the accuracy of the signal and its combination with other satellite navigation systems, such as those mentioned above.

Ávila and Lestarquit, next to a model of a satellite.

Ávila and Lestarquit, next to a model of a satellite.

The engineer attends EL ESPAÑOL shortly after his nomination is confirmed.

Why is it important for Europe to have its own satellite navigation system?

The European Union in general, its communication and energy networks, as well as banking networks and other vital infrastructures, have been increasingly dependent on satellite navigation for many years. The synchronization of all these networks, today, is done mainly with GPS, the American system. It has worked very well so far, but with such critical infrastructure for the economy, ensuring independence is vital. We see this clearly in the energy market, where the autonomy of the European electricity market is essential. As Europeans, to be able to defend our values ​​in today’s world it is essential to have infrastructures that guarantee independence in decision-making and Galileo is one of the main contributors to this goal.

Is it more of a geopolitical necessity than a technological one?

There are already systems such as GPS and Glonass, which are very successful, but with Galileo we not only want to repeat this success but we have to improve it, take advantage of the fact that, in recent years, technology has advanced. Galileo reflects the current state of technology in the world of satellite navigation. Glonass and GPS are technologies that were developed in the 1960s, with the Cold War. They had in mind a certain type of user, military, and they were advanced at the time but today they are obviously much more limited and in a way they are becoming obsolete. All this allows us with Galileo to be able to advance the state of the art at a technological level.

How can Galileo become the standard system ahead of GPS?

An advantage of the Galileo system is that it has been designed to be compatible and interoperable. Compatible is the ability to share frequency with other navigation systems without interfering with each other. Interoperable means that it can be used in combination with other systems in such a way that the end user is not able to distinguish if a satellite is from one constellation or another, so that the user can use all the satellites in sight as if they were from the same constellation and improve the quality and robustness of their position.

Taking into account that Galileo’s design will allow it to be used in combination with GPS, Glonass and the Chinese system, which is still under development, users will be able to enjoy the equivalent of four times as many satellites, thus increasing accuracy and reliability. But at the same time, the autonomy of Galileo will allow Galileo users to continue to function even when all other systems are not available.

Galileo's signal in action.

Galileo’s signal in action.

What have been your main contributions to this system?

Galileo has been expressly developed to achieve precision that is unimaginable in other systems. Galileo will transmit the highest bandwidth signal ever seen in satellite navigation. This signal is one of the two for which we are nominated and is called AltBOC.

The other invention, CBOC, is designed for the mass market: they are mainly the receivers that we use in our mobile phones, cars … CBOC is a signal that combines in an intelligent and original way two components with two different bandwidths: a narrow one and a wider one. This will allow receiver manufacturers to have a lot of flexibility when implementing, so that some will use the reduced signal to save consumption and costs while other manufacturers will want to take advantage of all the qualities of the signal to achieve the best possible accuracy, as well as a higher degree of robustness and quality. Our signal model has also inspired both the North Americans and the Chinese: the GPS III is going to emit an interoperable signal with ours while China also seeks to transmit its own variant but equally inspired by CBOC.

There are no commercial applications for Galileo yet, it will be out in 2020, but they are already working on the next generation. So fast are these systems obsolete today?

It must be borne in mind that user needs advance faster than system developments. I work specifically on the second generation of Galileo, and we take into account what is called the time to market. In the world of telecommunications, from the moment a need begins to be detected until development is completed, sometimes long times go by, therefore satellites must be developed with flexibility that, in addition to adapting to current needs, also adapt to current needs. that we still do not know.

Interesting years ahead for satellite navigation.

Keep in mind that space technology is developing at an impressive speed. Today, for example, there are applications of GPS that have emerged and that their creators could not even imagine at first. It is necessary to anticipate and in Galileo we have been pioneers in terms of hydrogen clocks or signal structure. With Galileo, we have already overtaken our main competitor, GPS, in many fields and we will have to continue to renew ourselves in the future to keep up with our competitors.