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Space tech improves public transport in rural areas

France – Many rural areas face a lack of public transportation connections. Although the need of public transportation services is undeniable, allocating buses on scheduled routes and times is financially unjustifiable. The Canadian-Belgium ‘SatelBus’ project solves this by creating an efficient ‘bus on demand’ service.

Existing services for bus passengers in rural areas often have to notify the bus driver at least a day in advance, so that an optimal route can be mapped out to pick up all passengers.

ESA’s Belgian national technology transfer partner Creaction successfully managed a Canadian-Belgian transfer of space technology to create the satellite-based, on-demand bus services project SatelBus. SatelBus sets up a more efficient service for remote rural areas that are out of reach of terrestrial communication networks, and allows for that rapid changes in bus itineraries based on last-minute input.

Bus on demand
Using ESA’s Artemis satellite, the SatelBus project pioneered a ‘bus on demand’ service. Bus passengers place requests with a call centre that adds them to the bus route almost immediately.

Software processes all changes every five minutes and sends a new bus route directly to the driver, while he is on the road.

The SatelBus demonstration phase was partly funded by ESA. It united a satellite space segment, operated by Belgium Vitrociset EPB, and satellite communication terminals, provided by Canadian EMS Satcom to be installed on board the buses, as well as hub equipment installed at ESA’s ground station in Redu, Belgium. The system uses a dedicated bandwidth on ESA’s Artemis satellite supporting two–way communication.

The passenger sends an SMS message to a dispatching centre saying when he/she would need a bus connection. The message is transmitted via the ESA ground station in Belgium to Artemis, and from there to the message processing centre in Ottawa, Canada, where the request is handled and included into a new bus route. This updated itinerary is then sent via Artemis directly to the bus driver’s terminal in a matter of minutes, so he can reroute and pick up his new customer.

“This new satellite tracking system has the potential to ensure that rural areas in Europe are not cut out of public transportation for cost reasons,” says Bruno Naulais, Incubation Manager at the ESA Technology Transfer Programme.

Successful tests promise huge commercial potential for this technology transfer
The system was successfully tested in trials in Belgium and France in 2006, when two busses equipped with the system serviced rural areas for a period of six months.

The technology developed by the partners under ESA contract has several advantages compared to existing technologies: the system works without local roaming requiring point-to-network ground communication not always available in rural areas, and has a high safety standard, as it works on an exclusive exchange line on Artemis.

Since the system provides vehicles with a mapping function and two-way messaging service between the bus and a call centre, passengers can call the bus from any location at any time.

This bus on demand service is not only interesting for rural areas in Europe, but could also tap into transportation needs in scarcely populated areas all over the world. System demonstrations have already been held in Algeria, Benin, Iraq and Senegal.

The ESA Technology Transfer Programme Office and Creaction are currently supporting options and opportunities to successfully commercialise this promising system. “This project has the merits to become a future applicant to our ESA Business Incubation scheme”, says Bruno Naulais.

The success of this technology even reaches out over the borders of on-demand public transportation, and future projects are in preparation.

ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office (TTPO)
The main mission of the TTPO is to facilitate the use of space technology and space systems for non-space applications and to demonstrate the benefit of the European space programme to European citizens. The TTPO is responsible for defining the overall approach and strategy for the transfer of space technologies including the incubation of start-up companies and their funding.