Dr.-Ing. Frank Zimmermann: Innovations in satellite navigation

Satellite navigation is a modern techno­l­ogy that is characterised by an increas­ing number of application areas and hence by a huge market potential. New, highly sophisticated solutions can have a substantial economic effect. But, whether this is going to create jobs depends de­­ci­­sively on the extent to which innovations are successfully implemented. The added value of a new application is forming the basis here in terms of market success.

The satellite navigation system Galileo is one of the most important European inno­­vation projects. It provides the foundation for a multitude of satellite-based pro­d­ucts and services. Galileo has been estab­­lished to supply data worldwide in order to determine exact locations. This system, similar to the US Global Positioning Sys­­tem (GPS), was jointly initiated by the European Union (EU) and the European Space Agency (ESA). Galileo provides an important contribution to the technological independence of Europe with its efficient satellite and ground infrastruc­­ture. Furthermore, in comparison with GPS, it offers improvements in terms of availability and accuracy. Galileo will con­­sist of a constellation of 30 satellites in three orbital planes at an altitude of 23,000 kilometres above the Earth and a global network of ground stations. It is designed to provide highly accurate, guaranteed global positioning services and will be interoperable with the two existing global systems, the GPS and the Russian GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System). By offering dual frequencies, Galileo will deliver real-time po­­si­­tioning accuracy down to the metre range, which is unprecedented for a pub­­licly avai­l­­able system. Galileo will be the first com­­mon European infrastructure that be­­comes pro­­perty of the Euro­­pean Union, re­­pre­sen­­­­ted by the Euro­­pean Com­­mission. As of 2014, an initial expansion stage available to the user shall be achieved by a con­­stel­lation of 18 satellites, and full ope­­­­ra­­tional capability of the satellite naviga­­tion system, including a constellation of 30 sa­­tellites, can be expected some­­time around 2019.

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The Centre for Satellite Navigation in Hesse, called cesah, is a competence, information and incubation centre for satellite navi­­ga­­tion and is owned by the state of Hessen, Darmstadt, the city of science, and by lead­­ing industry and research establishments. Be­­sides the Darmstadt University of Tech­­no­l­­­­­ogy and Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, there are also two private stake­­holders: T-Systems International GmbH and VEGA Space GmbH.
The foundation is based on a joint initiative of the European Space Agency ESA and the state of Hessen in order to create a centre for satellite navigation – in the immediate vicinity to the European Space Operations Centre ESOC in Darm­­stadt. The aim is to promote and accelerate the market development for appli­­ca­­tions in the field of satellite navigation as well as the creation of new high-tech jobs in the region. On behalf of ESA, cesah operates the Business Incubation Centre (BIC) in Darmstadt. It promotes young businesses and start-ups with the technical development, implementation and market launch of new products and ser­­vices related to satellite navigation. In close collaboration and through ESA’s technical and financial support, enterprises receive the necessary initial aid. This includes the development of ideas in terms of concept and business plan, questions about patenting and realisation of prototypes, creation of organisa­­tional structure as well as the acquisition of strategic partners and key clients. The integration into ESA’s network of experts as well as the close cooperation with regional and international partners represent critical success factors for entre­­­preneurs. In this context, cesah serves as organisation point and point of contact for the ideas competition European Satel­­lite Navigation Competition (ESNC).

The 22 companies which are already sup­­ported by cesah are dealing with ap­­pli­­cations for satellite navigation in trans­­port and logistics, flood protection and forestry, control and maintenance tasks, secure mobile payment services and high-accuracy positioning in the maritime in­­dustry. The main focus lies on topics re­­lated to the use of GPS, the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) and in future, in particular also on Galileo.

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In addition to the use in agriculture, ground and air traffic as well as pedestrian navigation, the sa­­tellite navigation may also be considered for a multitude of applications in the field of logistics, in particular, for the track­­­­ing of goods. However, satellite navi­­ga­­tion is reaching its limits inside buil­d­ings and in their immediate vicinity. The signal reception is limited or can even be completely hindered due to shadowing effects. In this context, com­­plementary technologies for indoor lo­­ca­­­tions pro­­mise a higher level of system availability and accuracy. In this case, only the com­­bined use of different navigation technologies may enable the opening of new markets.

The user expects solution approaches, especially in the field of logistics, which ensure a smooth process.

Against this backdrop, suitable techno­l­ogies for indoor locations and their im­­mediate vicinity have been intensively examined within the framework of the research project GNSS-INDOOR. The sys­­tem that has been developed for this purpose also combines communication elements and supportive methods along with the actual locating technology. The locating system has been supplemented with sensors for condition monitoring of carried goods in relation to pressure and temperature, just to mention two examples. These data are transmitted to a server either directly by radio or via web-based interfaces. As a result, along with the actual position information, an information content is generated that enables the optimization of a logistic process and is usable in form of monito­r­­ing as well as control. The early detection of errors in the process operation should enable cost savings.

First experimental studies on the efficiency of the selected technologies took place under laboratory conditions. This was followed by a field test at the DHL hub at Leipzig/Halle Airport for the monitoring of unit load devices that were transported by tractors from a depot to predefined loading zones on the airport apron. Equipped with a mobile navigation appliance, which combined GPS with WLAN in the underlying case, a complete tracking of the tractors and hence also the containers turned out to be successful. The complete process flow was monitored from a centre, and potential weaknesses, such as unloading at the wrong loading zone, were recognized in real time – supplemented with information on the condition of the load. In this way, the verification of suitability of the location system for process moni­­toring and optimisation was successfully provided in a real environment, under realistic conditions and within the frame­­work of an existing logistic process. The project was financed over a period of more than two years with funds provided by the Federal Ministry of Eco­­n­­om­ics and Technology through the German Aerospace Center (DLR) – under the sub­­sidy file number 50 NA 0701. In addition to further industry and research establishments, the Centre for Satellite Navigation in Hessen (cesah) and its stake­­holder Vega Space GmbH, based in Darmstadt, have been project partners. The acquired competence for the seamless tracking of goods, both indoors and outdoors, is benefiting the founding company cesah.

IMG_4488-KopieAfter completing his study in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Stuttgart and subsequent PhD in the field of Astro­­nautics, the author has been em­­ployed with Vega Space GmbH since 2001. Since 2009 he has been managing director of cesah GmbH (Centre for Satel­­lite Navigation in Hesse). In addition, Dr. Zimmermann is lecturer in the In­­s­­titute of Space Systems at the Univer­sity of Stuttgart.