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Visiting the headquarters of the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency

In the Praguian district of Holešovice, near the Vltava, rises the building that houses the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (GNSS), better known by the acronym GSA.

GSA primarily deals with the management, provision of services, safety and development of the markets of the two European satellite systems which are Galileo – a global satellite navigation system – and EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service), or otherwise the geostationary navigation system that improves the precision of the American GPS system on European territory.

To quickly understand and briefly explain the importance of GSA, just consider how many of us are using daily the Galileo satellite navigation system, without even necessarily realizing it, on our mobiles, when we check an online map, communicate our location within an app to call for a taxi, or to look for a restaurant nearby, and so on.

We were kindly welcomed at the entrance of this fortress of science and technology by Stefano Iannitti, ready to answer our questions. Engineer and expert in Network Security, expert in the highest levels in the fields of IT and space systems, he has a vast career behind him and is currently leading the GSA Security Department.

We immediately learned from Stefano that Italians working here represent 17% of the staff and that many of them hold high rank positions and responsibilities ranging from communication to legal, from program management to security.

The European GNSS Agency was founded in 2004 in Brussels, moving to its permanent headquarters in Prague on 1 September, 2012.

“From next year GSA will take on a new name: the European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA), and will also extend its range of activities to the satellite program for Earth observation ‘Copernicus’, and the ‘GovSatcom’, the Governmental Satellite Telecommunications program”, said Iannitti while showing us the site.

The Agency’s headquarters is located in Prague, but receives the support of other centers with technical and safety functions in Spain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

GSA works closely with the European Commission and collaborates with the European Space Agency (ESA). Its work is supervised by a board of directors comprising representatives from all European states and its current interim president is Alberto Tuozzi, an engineer of the Italian Space Agency.

“The primary mission of GSA – continues Iannitti – is to ensure that the European Galileo and EGNOS systems are a resource for everyone, and that precisely everyone, from public services to citizens, from large industries to small businesses, can use and benefit from these systems”.

Galileo is the only civilian and non-military satellite navigation system, and therefore, another priority of the GSA is to ensure that the evolution of the program’s services is based on the real needs of a wide range of users, in order to maximize the benefit to the society.

To this end, the Agency works closely with the European Commission and interacts with countless international and European institutions such as the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA), but also with representatives of the institutions of EU countries and various economic sectors, from mobility and transport, to telecom, emergency services, and new sectors such as drones, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, etc.

But why was Prague chosen as home-base for the GSA?

“In 2012, the Czech Republic was granted the allocation of the Agency’s headquarters due to the excellent quality of the proposal presented. Prague was a pleasant discovery, in terms of accessibility, efficiency of services and quality of life, and it has become an asset to attract professionals and experts”.

In fact, the Czech Republic is mainly involved in the development of value-added services and applications, the so-called “downstream market”; small and medium sized businesses and Czech research centers are involved in research and development projects within the European Horizon2020 program and other projects.

“The Czech Republic understood from the very beginning the strategic importance of GSA and global satellite navigation in Europe. Also, it was able to understand the potential of the sector in creating innovation, jobs and long-term growth opportunities”.

We also asked Iannitti what were the main application fields of the technologies developed and managed by GSA.

“Anyone who uses a smartphone is in fact a user of satellite navigation services, and if we consider that 5.5 billion mobile phones were in use in 2019, we quickly understand that the impact of satellite systems on the economy is certainly greater than anyone could imagine. But the satellite navigation systems go much further than that, generating a great number of benefits, for example increasing safety and efficiency for air, maritime and rail transport, optimizing agricultural resources and supporting the so-called ‘smart-farming’, or by reducing the response time for emergency intervention services”.

A recent British study estimated an economic loss of over one billion Euros per day if the satellite navigation service was interrupted, with very serious repercussions in the management of transport systems and emergency services.

From the height of his experience and professionalism, Iannitti assures us that we are only at the beginning of a digital revolution that will focus more and more on space in search of new solutions for the provision of services, security and management of a portfolio of applications that nowadays we can’t even begin to imagine. A growth due to the ever-growing need to have extremely precise location, navigation and time data in all sectors (drones, artificial intelligence, autonomous cars, etc).

“In December 2016, there was only one smartphone model on the market able to use Galileo, and in less than four years there are now over 450 models; in September 2019 we celebrated the first billion devices supporting this system”, explained Iannitti.

Twenty-four car manufacturers are already selling over 40 car models with eCall using EGNOS and Galileo. Of the 33 prototypes of industrial autonomous vehicles, 75% use Galileo. In fact, self-driving vehicles are perhaps the most impressive of the possibilities of satellite technologies, a real challenge of integrating technologies and data in the service of the future.

It’s satisfying to learn about the important role that Italy plays in this sector. Galileo involves all the EU countries and Italy has always been at the forefront in the field of space research. In addition to Galileo, the Italian industry also plays a prominent role in the activities of EGNOS, the European service that enhances GPS signals, thus allowing the use of satellite navigation in important applications, such as the landing phase of aircrafts, where the safety and reliability of the service are crucial.

Apart the large-scale industry, many Italian small and medium-sized enterprises take part in projects in the downstream sector, consisting of value-added services, data use and applications in various economic sectors.

“Space – underlines Iannitti – is an important economic development opportunity in expanding innovative technologies and creating related services. Italian companies have the knowledge and technical expertise to exploit the resources that space and satellite systems are offering us, as proven by countless research projects managed by GSA within the Horizon2020 program that currently involve 47 companies from our country”.

by Mauro Ruggiero