Brexit could leave the UK out of new EU-wide global positioning system (GPS) that went live in December after more than 15 years in development, with much of the cutting-edge work having been carried out by British companies.
The Galileo system, developed in partnership between the European Union and the European Space Agency (a 22-country, non-EU organisation that the UK will not be leaving), has been years in the making, and was built to end the dependence of European countries on GPS technology provided by either the US, Russia or China, who could shut down access to their systems should they so decide.
But access to Galileo will currently be restricted to members of the European Union.
When the SNP MP George Kerevan asked in the House of Commons whether the Department for International Trade had any plans to negotiate access to Galileo for the UK, trade minister Mark Garnier told him: “The use of spectrum is incredibly important and that spectrum is a very valuable asset for this country and we will work with Ofcom to ensure that we get our fair share.”
Spectrum concerns to the availability of limited amounts of bandwidth for TV and radio broadcasters and has nothing to do with GPS, or satellite navigation at all.
Mr Kerevan told The Independent: “There is technology there reserved for member states to use for public services, and the UK could be locked out. I’m sure that a deal will be done, and the UK could could pay its whack and get access, but it’s just another part of Brexit that no one’s actually thought about.
“There are targets for growing the UK space industry and it’s just woefully negligent that they haven’t thought about this in the past year.”
The Government is making much of its commitment to space technology, with plans for a UK spaceport potentially within three years.
The head of the European Space Agency’s EU policy office, Jean Bruston, has previously warned that the UK would have to renegotiate terms to continue participating in Galileo and other space projects.
Norway and Switzerland are members of the ESA but had to broker their own agreements to join Galileo in 2009 and 2014 respectively.
Britain is also party to other EU-led space programmes such as the Copernicus satellite system, which monitors environmental damage.
“As soon as [Britain] is leaving the EU it is not participating in these programmes any longer,” Mr Bruston said.
UK companies hold contracts worth tens of millions to provide hardware to the project.
“If nothing changes [and Brexit goes ahead], we would have to stop these contracts,” Mr Bruston warned.
The project has suffered several technological setbacks, notably an incident late last year when clocks on nine of the satellites stopped working. But the system could prove superior to the American GPS system currently deployed by Britain. For security reasons that system provides more accurate location data to the US military than commercial users receive. Galileo may eventually offer the same degree of accuracy to cars and phones as the US gives to its warplanes and submarines.
Sources at the Department for International Trade advised that any negotiations on Galileo could only begin after Article 50 has been triggered. In the meantime, the possibility of the UK ending up with poorer quality satellite navigation than their continental neighbours, despite having helped build it, is real.