The European Union has not done enough to harness the full potential of its space programs, according to a special report published April 21 by the European Court of Auditors (ECA). While the satellite-based programs Galileo and Copernicus provide valuable services and data, more efforts are needed to capitalize on the significant investment made — around €18 billion so far — and to optimize the benefits they bring to citizens and the economy.
In 69 pages, the auditors call for a comprehensive strategy, more targeted actions and better use of the regulatory framework for efficiently supporting the uptake of services.
The EU currently has three space programs, two of which account for the lion’s share of investment: Copernicus, which provides data from Earth observation satellites, and the Galileo GNSS. EGNOS is the third, but was not included in the audit.
For the 2021-2027 period, the EU has earmarked more than €14 billion for its space programs. In its 2016 strategy, the European Commission endeavored to maximize the economic and societal benefits provided by the European space programs. However, it did not define which benefits were being sought. Nor did it set clear targets and timeframes explaining what should be achieved, and by when.
“Technologically, the EU has succeeded in becoming a global player in terms of space-based earth observation and navigation services. But the EU lacks a comprehensive approach for supporting the uptake of its space services to fully capitalise on the significant public investment made”, said Mihails Kozlovs, the member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report.
Use of EU Space Services Needs an Extra Boost
“As most measures for 2021-2027 are still on the launch pad, we hope that our audit will mark the countdown to a new set of actions that can efficiently help the EU to reap the full benefits of these valuable assets.”
The EU auditors found that the Commission’s approach to assessing the extent of the potential benefits had a number of shortcomings. As a result, the economic impact on growth and jobs and the actual overall benefits of the programs are not known, and may have been over- or underestimated.
The auditors note that the Galileo program was already delayed by eight years behind the initial plans when operations began in 2016. Nonetheless, good progress has been made recently in introducing Galileo-compatible receivers and thus enabling uptake in relevant market segments: for example, smartphones or automotive applications.
However, the US GPS system, the first worldwide global satellite navigation system, has still a strong market penetration, and it will take time until users adopt Galileo more widely. This is exacerbated by recurrent delays: even though Galileo has features which other systems cannot provide, they are not yet fully available.
The auditors also found that several key actions to promote the EU-wide use of Copernicus data were not sufficiently targeted, or that they had not delivered the increase in uptake which had been hoped for. Applications need to be used more widely than the space sector to have their full effect, but their use remains largely restricted to experts and scientists. Access to Copernicus data has been improved, but it is still provided through too many different platforms, and there is still no long-term vision for efficient access to the data.
In its 2016 Space Strategy for Europe, the Commission also committed to take regulatory measures to encourage the uptake of space solutions. Yet there has been little action in identifying regulatory or administrative barriers that may hamper the use of space services. The Commission has only partly taken advantage of the potential for promoting these services in EU legislation or standards, and significant gaps remain in promoting the use of EU space programs in EU legislation or international standards, the auditors warn. In many relevant areas, for instance road transport and logistics, autonomous cars and drones, regulation is at best incomplete, and at worst totally absent.
The European Commission, the European Space Agency (ESA), and various other EU and non-EU entities share the management of the EU space programmes in cooperation with Member States.
Currently, the EU has three flagship space programs:
• Copernicus, the world’s largest earth observation program;
• Galileo, Europe’s global navigation satellite system (GNSS);
• EGNOS, the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service. Due to its very specific scope and its limited financial significance, EGNOS was not included within the scope of this audit.
Special report 07/2021: “EU space programmes Galileo and Copernicus: services launched, but the uptake needs a further boost” is currently available in English on the ECA website (eca.europa.eu). Other EU languages will be available shortly.