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New Initiative by European Space Agency (ESA) to Enhance Mobility of UK Transport System

The importance of the transport sector to the UK economy – and its impact upon the everyday lives of millions of Britons – is reflected in the focus of a new initiative by the European Space Agency (ESA) in conjunction with the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

Responding to the need for our overstretched transport infrastructures to accommodate ever-increasing traffic, ESA has established an Ambassador Platform on Enhanced Mobility at its recently-opened centre at Harwell in Oxfordshire.

Image courtesy of European Space Agency (ESA)

Enhanced mobility is a generic term for improvements in the efficiency, safety and environmental sustainability of all forms of mobile activity (including the road safety measures like installing convex mirrors etc.), whether commercial or personal. So it includes such objectives as reducing delays, lowering pollution levels on our rail network and enabling people to access broadband services wherever they happen to be.

ESA believes that space can make unique contributions to meeting these challenges. The down-to-earth nature of those contributions might come as a surprise, given that space usually conjures up images of rockets blasting off from Cape Canaveral, or scientific missions that most of us find barely comprehensible.

Of course the space industry has made some inroads into mass-market applications, notably satellite television and the satellite navigation systems that are becoming commonplace in family cars. Although traditionally associated with the development of space technology, ESA believes that the industry’s future depends upon developing more of these mass-market applications: and in particular in the integration of space and terrestrial systems to provide solutions to everyday problems, like real-time traffic information that enables travellers to plan their journeys according to the actual and predicted condition of the transport networks.

Enter ESA’s Integrated Applications Promotion programme (IAP for short). The aim of the programme is to take space systems that were designed for specific but limited purposes and combine them in innovative ways to meet a multitude of down-to-earth needs. To achieve this, ESA invites proposals from partnerships of users, industry and academia to address specific problems; and offers successful bidders funding for feasibility studies and demonstration projects leading to operational services. Already there are IAP projects addressing issues such as the avoidance of bird strikes on aircraft during take-off and landing; monitoring the movement of hazardous goods on our roads; and increasing the number of trains that can run safely along the same track. (See http://iap.esa.int for further details.)

Alan Brunstrom, Manager of the ESA Ambassador Platform on Enhanced Mobility at Harwell, says that likely areas for future activities include systems for reducing the number of trucks that run empty or with part loads; monitoring pollution levels in our cities and implementing active traffic management and public information systems to reduce their impact; and perhaps most critically, informed incident management. The combination of satellite imagery for situation awareness, satellite navigation for tracking emergency response teams and satellite telecommunications to enable them to keep in touch when terrestrial systems are unavailable, should greatly improve the ability of the authorities to manage any kind of crisis affecting our transport networks.

Michael Lawrence of the Technology Strategy Board added “we have been working very closely with ESA for the last couple of years to actively promote IAP with increasing success. This work ties in nicely with the newly formed UK Space Agency and their goals of creating innovative space-based services industry”.

If even some of these initiatives come to fruition, then a few years from now we may see all the disparate systems that manage elements of the transport network knitted together into an integrated whole. If that happens, then instead of resigning ourselves to ever-worsening congestion, we may be able to take informed decisions that give us far more control over our increasingly mobile lives.

For more information contact:
Alan Brunstrom, 01235 567 903, Alan.Brunstrom@esa.int

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