Vojtech Fort is the Innovation Officer in the Market Development department at the European GNSS Agency. His life revolves around innovation and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).
If you’re working on a project hoping to commercialize it, the next ten minutes you spend reading will be especially useful to what you’re trying to achieve.
WHAT IS GALILEO? WHAT IS EGNOS?
Galileo is a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) which you might know as GPS from North America.
WHAT DO YOU DO AND WHO DO YOU HELP?
I work in research and development, supporting companies implementing solutions based on satellite navigation.
We do it via grants, such as Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe, competitions supporting innovative startups and individuals, and private investment to support projects further on their journey to deliver a product or service to the market.
WHAT DOES THE EUROPEAN GNSS AGENCY (GSA) DO?
GSA is the operator and gatekeeper of security and accreditation for Galileo and EGNOS.
GSA also heads the market development of satellite navigation in Europe and the market uptake of these two systems.
We work with people and companies to build innovative products around global navigation — satellite systems and positioning systems.
WHAT INDUSTRIES ARE THESE PRODUCTS AIMED AT? WHERE DO YOU SEE INNOVATION HAPPENING?
As we all know, it’s one thing to build the satellite system… but without final users, they’ll be just pieces of hardware orbiting the planet and sending a signal in space.
Galileo and EGNOS have already been developed; they’re up and running.
We need to make sure they’re being used by people and there is a value chain in different market segments.
The applications of the satellite systems are endless and we separate them into different market segments.
For example, agriculture, location-based services (mainly phones), transport usages (navigation on roads, rail or maritime), and aviation (landing procedures heavily rely on EGNOS).
The geomatics market is important; it’s a segment that’s usually the first adopter because they need the highest precision locationing.
Timing and synchronization is another segment; Galileo is not only about positioning and navigation, but timing as well.
Many people don’t realize they can get exact timing from the system.
WHAT DO YOU NEED FOR AN IDEA? HARDWARE, TECHNOLOGY, AND A MARKET? HOW IMPORTANT IS THE TEAM OR THE PERSON BEHIND THE IDEA?
10% of GDP relies on satellite navigation.
For private investment, the team is critical. When you start up and form a team, investors look at your team’s composition for field specialization.
For bigger projects, grants projects, or projects running within the programs such as Horizon 2020, and Horizon Europe, we speak of a consortium of companies.
These companies form a bigger group of companies, working together on the project. Each of them brings something to it. One brings the knowledge on satellite navigation, another one represents the end-users defining the user requirements, the third one provides additional technologies or helps with the business side of the project.
WHAT TYPES OF PROJECTS DO YOU WORK ON?
One is MOBNET, which is a mobile network for people’s location for natural and manmade disasters.
It’s not a new project, but my favorite.
They locate victims via their mobile phones during natural disasters and emergency situations such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or large snowstorms.
It’s a fact that most people found after a disaster will still have their mobile phones on them.
Instead of searching for a person, emergency services search for a mobile phone with a drone.
The drone has a precise Galileo and EGNOS receiver and a digital serial technology module on board, which can behave like a cell tower for GNSS. It flies over the area where they’re searching for the victims and acts as a tower — the phones try to connect to it.
It measures the time of arrival of the signal and calculates the distance to the mobile phone.
The drone flies in multiple locations and connects with the phones multiple times. This way, it has more distances from the known positions because it has a GNSS receiver onboard.
From the known distances and from the known points, it calculates the final position of a mobile phone through triangulation?, which is the same process GNSS is based on.
WOULDN’T IT BE FASTER IF TELECOM COMPANIES USED THEIR NETWORK TO DO THE SAME?
The precision wouldn’t be sufficient with what a network can do today.
More importantly, when there is an earthquake, the network is down.
DOES THIS WORK ALL OVER THE WORLD OR JUST WITH GNSS AND GALILEO?
Galileo is a global system.
EGNOS is a local system for Europe, but the solution works anywhere because EGNOS is an additional feature and additional measurement to the system.
The system can choose from the available signals to always provide the best precision. When it doesn’t have the EGNOS signal, it will still work.
WOULD THIS SPOOFING OF THE CELL PHONE TOWERS, AKA A DRONE WITH KIT ON IT, WORK IN DIFFERENT GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS? OR JUST EUROPE?
Different geographical locations have different frequencies.
Modern devices can work with these multiple frequencies. When you have a mobile phone, it comes already equipped with the hardware that can work on multiple frequencies — when it’s shipped to Europe or the United States, it works because it’s compatible with both.
The system can be developed and ready to be used in multiple locations.
A device that acts as a cell tower, or spoofing of the signal, is illegal in many countries. For this project, we had to do the testing after a special agreement in a military field.
Later, Civil Protection forces, which would be the end-users of such a system, can get approval for emergency situations.
WHAT DOES THE OUTPUT OF FLYING THESE CIVIL DRONES LOOK LIKE? A MAP WITH LOCATIONS ON IT?
Yes, the user gets a base station with a map — they get the coordinates and the victim’s position on the map.
WHAT ACCURACIES ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
In a wild area, it’s full precision 10 meters.
In an urban area for search and rescue application, the requirement was 2 to 5 meters, and the project achieved a 5-meter accuracy.
WHEN CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE SYSTEMS LIKE THIS IN OPERATION?
I hope as soon as possible — admittedly, this project isn’t new, and it hasn’t made it to the market yet.
This is also the reason GSA is looking into how to develop such ideas further.
It’s one thing to develop a commercial product to make a profit on.
It’s another thing to develop ideas and technological solutions to save lives. Yet, we also need to onboard and pursue these ideas and support the consortium companies further, even after they finish such a project, to give it the best chance to get it out to the intended market.
WHAT DO YOU THINK THEY’RE MISSING? IT’S GOING TO SAVE LIVES. WHY HASN’T THIS BEEN IMPLEMENTED ALREADY?
Because the solution may not be the final product.
We measure the readiness of the technology or solution via a Technological Readiness Level (TRL) from 1 to 9, where 9 is the final product.
This project with their prototype is at TRL 7. They still need investment to go from 7 to 9, which would be the final product.
They need to find a partner to industrialize the product and sell it.
What’s common is that the people behind these projects are talented researchers. They’re tech-savvy, but sometimes they fall short on the business approach and knowledge of the market.
This is also why GSA gives them expert business advice on their business plan, how to execute it, and how to arrive at the market.
I UNDERSTAND THERE’S ANOTHER PROJECT FOR FIREFIGHTERS FIGHTING FIRES INDOORS
Behind the idea is a fire brigade, which later became part of the project.
They were extinguishing fire in a building, and it collapsed. They tried to find the firefighters in the building, but they didn’t know where they could be because they didn’t have any positioning system or any reference to where the firefighters were.
It took a long time to find them.
They needed a solution for such an event.
Another common issue they face is that the commander doesn’t always know the precise location of firefighters, even if he knows the location of the fire. He can’t help them avoid risky situations from his monitoring station.
Relying on GNSS is a possibility if the fire is outside with good visibility of the satellite.
But what about the fires inside buildings where satellite signals are entirely blocked or in a forest where they’re limited?
They need different technology to rely on to work safer and save more lives.
THEY NEED THESE THREE TECHNOLOGIES
The first is GNSS multi-constellation — Galileo and EGNOS for absolute positioning.
The second is using ultra-wideband to measure the distances between firefighters. When you know the distances, you can say where they are in absolute terms.
The third is the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), which measures the acceleration and the orientation of the device. Inside the IMU, there are more devices, such as a compass that detects pressure — the pressure is important because it shows on which floor of the building the firefighter is.
All this information is meshed together by using a sophisticated particle filter algorithm to give the commander the ultimate position of the firefighter.
IS THIS WORKING AS A MESH NETWORK BETWEEN THE FIREFIGHTERS?
The devices on the firefighters are nodes that communicate with Bluetooth (long range v5), and LoRa.
The nodes and the commander base station communicate with each other — they pass the information on the corrections of the signal from EGNOS via EDAS (Data Access Service) — EGNOS’ information from the internet.
Bluetooth works here because it has a bigger data bandwidth, only it cannot reach far, while LoRa works on long-range with lower data bandwidth.
There’s a communication manager on the device, checking the availability of the technology and decides how the data will be sent in between the nodes.
IF ONE FIREFIGHTER SUDDENLY HAS BETTER ACCESS TO A GNSS SIGNAL, WILL THAT AUTOMATICALLY LIFT OR INCREASE THE ACCURACY OF THE POSITIONING OF EVERY NODE IN THE NETWORK?
Imagine all the nodes get their signals from GNSS as they arrive at the scene.
As they walk into the building, they lose the signal from GNSS. They now rely on the IMU and the ultra-wideband — precisions of which get worse by the second.
One firefighter gets close to a window. The receiver inside his device catches the signal from Galileo — the margin of confidence of that node increases and automatically sends the information to other nodes.
The position of the other firefighters is automatically corrected.
DO WE ASSUME WE KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THE BUILDINGS BEFORE THE FIREFIGHTERS GO IN?
It’s different for every situation.
The solution also works with the presumption that maps might not be available. There are only a few buildings with good maps. Still, the solution can put different base maps on the device, such as Google Maps or OpenStreetMaps, or more layers.
Inside OpenStreetMaps, a bicycle layer is very useful for them in an urban area, but the situation can differ by country.
HOW INTELLIGENT IS THE SYSTEM FOR RECOGNIZING OBJECTS?
Does it know if there’s a wall here or a door? Does it correct itself?
The technical researchers in the project used walls as a reference for the positioning. Surprisingly, the algorithm works better with that information.
But not all the time — the walls can have holes in them during a fire, or they can collapse. Sometimes, rescue teams even decide to make a hole in the wall because it is dangerous to go a different way.
In these extreme cases, it’s impossible to use walls inside the building as a reference for the algorithm.
DID THESE USE CASES HAVE TO REINVENT THE WHEEL AND CREATE NEW TECHNOLOGIES? OR ARE THEY JUST STRINGING TOGETHER KNOWN TECHNOLOGIES IN UNIQUE WAYS?
When we speak of innovation, people imagine that they have to invent something breakthrough that nobody’s ever seen.
Most of the time, innovation emerges from the simple marriage of different technologies and sensors with the addition of a smart algorithm. In the firefighter locationing case, the algorithm had to be fine-tuned for dead reckoning because firefighters walk entirely differently from an average person.
DO THESE DISTINCT ELEMENTS EVER BECOME A PROJECT AND TURN INTO A PRODUCT ON THEIR OWN?
Yes, for example, algorithms can be applied to another use case later on.
What also happens often is that people don’t just use the technology for the original final product, but along the way, they discover core technology concepts they can use in future products.
I HAVE A GREAT IDEA BASED ON GNSS. WHAT SHOULD I DO?
It depends if you’re an individual or a big company.
Individuals, students or consultants can take part in our competitions to test their ideas.
We organize different competitions, such as the MyGalileoSolution, MyGalileoDrone, where you can bring forward your idea, describe the problem you’re solving, how you’re solving it, what would be the business case. GSA evaluates these applications and selects the winners.
Then, there are geomatics competitions for agricultural applications, plus special prizes and a competition called Galileo Masters, and, coming soon, Copernicus Masters.
It’s a great start for individuals and small companies.
The incubation we offer is also something worth considering. When we select the top 30 of a competition, we continue helping applicants develop their solutions; we train them from the business side and provide them incubation, partially or fully.
Larger companies and small to medium enterprises can participate in the Horizon Europe projects, where they can read the call for proposal, soon to be published, and answer the calls together with their partners.
IS THIS ONLY AVAILABLE TO EUROPEAN CITIZENS IN EUROPE? OR IT’S FOR ANYONE WITH AN IDEA FOR A TECHNOLOGY WITH GALILEO?
GSA is a European Union Agency, which means we mainly focus on European Union member states. For Horizon 2020, we primarily assisted companies or organizations from the member states.
However, organizations from third countries can participate if it’s justified and necessary for the project.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR FROM APPLICANTS?
First, skill sets.
For a small startup, you need people with the right skills on the team. For a bigger project, it’s good to have a clear role for each partner, what that partner brings to the project, and know how any knowledge gap will be filled in by the right partners.
Second, the state of the art — what’s the level of technology at the time of application? What kind of competition is there for it?
Third, being able to explain the problem and the solution clearly.
HOW IMPORTANT IS A MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT AT THE TIME OF THE APPLICATION?
It’s beneficial and may not even be necessary, depending on the idea stage at the time of the application.
It’s a plus, yes, for the investors to see a minimum viable product.
DO PEOPLE EVER HAVE A MINIMUM VIABLE AUDIENCE?
Sometimes, when projects apply, they already say which companies or users would be interested in such a service. They even provide letters of interest from different organizations that highlight the importance of such a solution for them.
WHAT SKILLS DO PROJECT LEADERS NEED?
Leadership and management skills, plus an overview of the market and the technology.
You don’t need to know all the details because the other people know the details, but you should be aware of the big picture, understand where you’re going, and how you’ll get there.
Do you get experienced applicants with many products under their belt, or never-done-anything-like-this-before, too?
We get applications from companies with decades of experience, and through our competitions, we get motivated teams who’ve not done something like this yet but are motivated to develop a solution.
Both are possible, and it helps if at least one person on the team has experience running a similar project.
The two case studies Vojtech talked about are based on existing technologies.
For me, at least, a big part of the innovation was the combination of the technologies and how they were put together.
This lowers the barrier to entry. It means if you have a good idea, you don’t have to show up and invent cloud computing, Global Navigation Satellite Systems, or the internet.
You can take existing tools and technologies and combine them so that you create something new.
Maybe you don’t even create something new, only follow a known recipe; use a known combination of these tools and apply it to a different use case.
This is innovation and we can participate. This means we can put these building blocks together to surprise and delight the people we seek to serve.
Once you have an idea, you see an opportunity, a unique combination of tools and services that might just solve a problem in a way that’s better than the existing state of art…
What holds you back?
Steven Pressfield refers to it as resistance. It’s a little voice in your head designed to keep you safe during times when you want to try something new and knowing it may not work — resistance shows up.
It eagerly manufactures thousands of reasons you shouldn’t try the new thing.
It reminds you of all of your past failures.
It’s designed to protect you from conflict, but it also gets in the way of doing your best work.
The absence of conflict is not necessarily harmony — it might be apathy.
“If this doesn’t work, will I get to try again? Will I get to continue playing the game?”
If the answer to that question is YES, then the resistance might not be protecting you.
It’s probably holding you back.