A Visit to Septentrio Satellite Navigation

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I first became acquainted with Septentrio Satellite Navigation in 2001 when the company’s CEO, Peter Grognard, made a presentation that was favorably received at a Civil Global Positioning System Service Interface Committee (CGSIC) conference in Crystal City, VA. In the absence of Galileo authorities, Grognard quickly became the de facto spokesman for Galileo, the European Union’s long-planned GNSS constellation.

Since then, Galileo has started sending its own people to the event, but I looked forward to learning more about Grognard’s company when the opportunity arose. That opportunity came about following our visit to the Intergeo conference in Germany last year, so we drove south to visit Septentrio’s headquarters in Leuven, Belgium to find out more about the company. Grognard was in South America on business, so we met with Jan Van Hees, the sales and business development manager.

Septentrio, a word that indicates "north" on many historic maps, is derived from septem, Latin for seven. "Septentrio" was one of the ancient names for the north wind that came from the direction of the seven-star constellation Ursa Major. Ancient navigators could easily find the North Star, Polaris, by its alignment with the outer stars of Ursa Major (meaning Great Bear; also known as the Big Dipper) in the night sky. For this reason, the modern-day Septentrio has incorporated a compass into its logo.

The company began in 2000 as an outgrowth of Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC), a large independent microelectronics technology center also headquartered in Leuven. IMEC has a sister company in The Netherlands (IMEC-NL), as well as offices in the US, China and Taiwan, and representatives in Japan. IMEC began in 1984 as a nonprofit research facility designed to address the strategic importance of microelectronics for industry and the major investments that are required to keep up with developments in this field, bridging the gap between fundamental research at universities and technological development in industry.

A world-leader in nanoelectronics and nanotechnology research, IMEC focuses its research 10 years out. One of the unique applications they are currently working on involves sensors in clothing that use body heat for power. IMEC’s staff includes more than 1,600 people, of which more than 500 are graduate-level industrial residents and guest researchers. In 2007, IMEC’s revenue was $350 million. Van Hees said one of IMEC’s strengths is that many industrial competitors participate, and all benefit from collaborative research. Grognard, along with the six other founders of Septentrio, was encouraged by IMEC to spin off IMEC-developed GNSS technology. Van Hees was the twelfth employee hired, has a degree in electrical engineering, and spent a year at Stanford University.

Today, privately-held Septentrio has 70 employees from 11 different nations. Of the 70, the majority are engineers. As an Original Equipment Manufacturer, most of its products are OEM in nature (such as the GNSS board for the Altus APS-3). Van Hees said that NovAtel is Septentrio’s biggest competitor, and admitted that although NovAtel is a more established hardware provider, Septentrio is better at chip and module design, and algorithms.

Van Hees stressed that the company considers itself to be unique and doesn’t "just throw boards over the wall," but rather focuses on applications, engineering and support. In addition to Altus, the company provides boards for the giant subsea engineering and construction company Subsea 7, as well as various machine control companies.

End users also include agriculture, where potato farmers are interested in centimeter-level positioning. Septentrio receivers provide high-quality and stable tracking performance for straddle carriers at the port of Antwerp, where more than six million cargo containers pass through each year. State of the art tracking and positioning capabilities include the LAMBDA RTK technique based on The Netherlands’ Delft University algorithm. Other interesting applications include fish-searching UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) scouts that are launched from fishing vessels. The company is also involved in inertial guidance applications. By 2007, the company had more than 100 OEM customers worldwide.

Septentrio plays a central role in the development of Galileo and EGNOS and provides research for the European Space Agency. The company built test receivers for the first four Galileo satellites. Van Hees says that there has been a great deal of focus on Galileo’s satellites, but not enough on the users. Therefore, together with a number of other companies, Septentrio founded Galileo Services, an organization specifically created to stimulate and promote the downstream applications for which Galileo was originally conceived.

While it has become a sobering reality that GPS alone is insufficient to provide enough integrity, or reliability and resistance to jamming and interference of the weak GNSS signals, still, my question to Van Hees was this: Does the world really need Galileo? He provided two good answers. First, Galileo will provide integrity by including it as part of the broadcast signal. He also mentioned that the integrity info will aid in dealing with the coming Solar Max, but advises users to not expect what is not possible. Second, Van Hees admitted that, because it contains more information, the Galileo signal takes longer to acquire, but a major benefit is that it handles multipath better than existing systems.

We next discussed Septentrio’s products. Altus CEO Neil Vancans had already told me that, not only are the Septentrio boards wired into the future of GNSS, they provide superior multipath mitigation. According to Septentrio, its receivers incorporate the patented multipath mitigation technique called APME (A Posteriori Multipath Estimator). This technique focuses primarily on short-delay multipath, the most common type encountered by users, and differs from other multipath mitigation techniques that primarily suppress medium and long-delay multipath. The result is an improvement of up to 50 percent in multipath reduction in normal circumstances. Because APME is a bias-free mitigation technique, it is unlike most other techniques that introduce a satellite-dependent error in the code pseudo-range that can cause extra measurement errors, especially in network applications.

Septentrio’s products are grouped into four categories: AsteRx, PolaRx (pronounced "asterex," and "polarex"), antennas and software. We viewed the new GReCo3 (GNSS Receiver Core) application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) which is incorporated into the AsteRx2 board used by the APS-3 (see pictures). This ASIC is one-fourth of the size and consumes one-fourth of the power of its predecessor. The receiver names are in keeping with the Septentrio’s family of star-studded nomenclature: PolaRx originates from a combination of the Latin word `Polaris’ (Pola) and receiver (Rx), and AsteRx incorporates Aster, the Greek word for star.

Both the AsteRx and PolaRx families are available as GPS- and GLONASScapable, or GPS-only. Both groups are dual-frequency and work with augmentation systems such as WAAS and EGNOS. Two exceptions to the overall dual-frequency offerings are the AsterRx1 and AsteRxi, which are available in single-frequency. The AsteRxi comes in single- or dual-frequency and incorporates an IMU. Both groups are available as boards or in sturdy metal housings. While the name PolaRx2e may sound a bit lofty, its applications are fairly down to earth (so to speak) and are being used in a variety of
applications, including monitoring networks, tsunami detection, aerial photography, precision agriculture, and machine control.

Antenna offerings include single and dual frequency and GPS-only or GPS/ GLONASS. For attitude and heading determination, the company offers a receiver that will take multiple antenna inputs. Software includes the PP-SDK post-processing software development kit and RxMobile, a portable GUI field controller for Septentrio receivers. A special timing receiver offers the same synchronization feature used by most timing laboratories in the world for precise time and frequency transfer.

Septentrio has a respected track record of industry-firsts:
• the first modernized GPS L2C receiver in 2003 
• the first Galileo receiver in 2005
• the first reception of Galileo signal-inspace in 2007
• the first industrial OEM GPS/ Galileo receiver board in 2007.

As the winds of success pushed the company toward new horizons, Septentrio entered the American market in 2007, incorporating in California and opening an office led by industry veteran Chris Litton. The company is also active in China. Longtime acquaintance and industry veteran Neil Vancans of Altus Positioning Systems happened to be in the office the day we visited, so I asked him why he chose to align Altus with Septentrio. In his response, Vancans said he studied the products of five different OEM manufacturers before settling on the AsteRx2 board. In addition, he said he was impressed by the quality of Septentrio’s people, their skills in project management, and their commitment to helping his startup succeed. Septentrio wanted to do business with Altus because it gives them another avenue into the precise market, and more particularly, the American market. Vancans believes that the ability to control project management­the development process which creates new products­is one of the biggest sources of competitive advantage. "Septentrio," he says, "has extraordinary ability in the seemingly magical process of managing signals and distilling from them precise measurements that form the pseudo-range observations that receivers depend on." [See the related article on Vancans and Altus in this issue.]

As we move into the future, I have no doubt that we will be hearing more about Septentrio. They seem to have an inside track on Galileo and are a major player in the European market. According to Van Hees, "Septentrio’s performance and versatility are coupled with a responsive support team that works closely with our customers to ensure maximum benefit, world-class performance, and competitive costs."

From the IMEC technology "incubator" to Septentrio’s establishment as a global player in GNSS, it’s obvious that the company’s focus on OEMs is paying off. Those keeping an eye to the sky as to where GNSS technology is headed in the next ten years or beyond would do well to chart the winds of Septentrio. As they continue to increase their influence around the globe, it is a safe bet that they may well play a big part in directing the future of GNSS.

Marc Cheves is Editor of the magazine.

A 702Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE