The Role of GNSS & Satellite-Based Augmentation Systems (SBAS) in fighting the spread of COVID-19

The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), which has spread all over the world, was first identified towards the end of 2019, before the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a global pandemic, on March 11, 2020. Most medical facilities all over the world are operating at full capacity while scientists race to find a cure or vaccine. Measures to reduce transmission of COVID-19 include individual and environmental measures, detection and isolation of cases through contact tracing and quarantine, social and physical distancing measures including those for mass gatherings, international travel measures, as well as the administration of various treatments. 

In this article, two EGNOS in Africa Joint Programme Office (JPO) GNSS Experts1 explores how Global Navigation Satellite Systems and Space-Based Augmentation Systems play a big role in mitigating the COVID-19 impact by analyzing solutions for Emergency Responses, Contact tracing, Queue management and drone-based applications. 

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications for Emergency Response

GIS geospatial databases are being used in combination with GNSS to display information for COVID-19 crisis response. For example, medical personnel and public health administrators are using them to locate hospitals precisely, pharmacies, ad hoc emergency medical centres, among others. Applications like Docandu (with coverage in Greece) have also been developed to use GNSS geolocation data to find the nearest doctor available for a user. Another application GINA (with coverage in the Czech Republic) is being used by first responders such as police officers, firefighters, rescuers or any volunteers to obtain real-time information about infected zones while working in the field. 

GNSS positioning data enables easy contact tracing to identify potential risky encounters

Contact tracing involves the identification, follow-up and management of people exposed to an infected person. GNSS positioning data has been essential in adding a geolocation functionality to COVID-19 contact tracing applications enabling precise location and tracking. For example, application (whose coverage is the Czech Republic) alerts citizens of potential risky encounters through location sharing. Another application called CovTrack (with coverage in Romania) uses Bluetooth in combination with GNSS positioning data to monitor the people within the user’s environment verifying whether the people with whom the user came in contact have subsequently been confirmed with COVID-19.

Monitoring of real-time crowdsourced location data to users for Queue management 

Queue Management leverages on GNSS data. Applications like Filaindiana, (with coverage in Italy) provides real-time crowd-sourced location data to users, informing them of the length of queues at supermarkets, restaurants, cafes, etc. Other applications like the Smart Bus Madrid application (with coverage in Madrid, Spain), provide real-time location information on the movement of public transport so that users spend the shortest time possible on the streets. The Galileo Green Lane application (with coverage in Europe), monitors the traffic situation at European border crossings. It provides border officials and drivers with real-time information on the main Europe border crossings in terms of traffic and waiting time. These queue management applications are facilitating the effective implementation of social distancing guidelines to prevent overcrowding.

Some of these applications have leveraged the precise positioning data provided by GNSS with the images provided by Earth Observation Satellites. Crowdless, a global application developed by a student at the University of Oxford, uses open-source information, precision GPS technology and high-resolution satellite images to help people navigate outdoors safely.

Minimizing human interaction and contactless interventions with GNSS equipped Drones

The requirement for social distancing has triggered the increased use of drones for various applications enabling minimal human interaction. Drones have been critical in some parts of China, US and Australia for the delivery of medicines to hospitals, the transportation of samples from hospitals to laboratories, policing for “social-distance” monitoring and the delivery of groceries to homes. 

In countries like Spain, Indonesia, Philippines, Colombia, Chile, and the UAE where agricultural drones previously sprayed fields, they now use them to disinfect common spaces and large public areas. Drones can traverse narrow spaces, automatically avoid obstacles and disinfect targeted areas from different angles.

Drones equipped with GNSS modules and infrared cameras measure the temperatures of people in their homes under lockdown. In the United States, a UAV company Draganfly uses drones fitted with u-Blox GNSS modules, specialized sensors and computer vision systems to monitor people’s vital signs as well as to detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds.

Using the improved performance provided by SBAS to support the safety of life and critical operations 

Satellite-Based Augmentation systems have continued to be essential in enabling applications where accuracy and integrity are essential such as the aviation domain applications. For example, Europe’s SBAS, European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS), has been useful in facilitating emergency response, enabling air ambulances to safely land in remote areas that are difficult to reach and/or have bad weather conditions. This is because, contrary to using GNSS core constellations (GPS, Galileo, GLONASS and Beidou) alone, SBAS systems provide the accuracy, integrity, service continuity and availability that satisfy the stringent operational requirements set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) for use in such critical flight phases as final approaches. In addition, SBAS enables the operation of advanced arrival, approach and departure procedures including the implementation of straight-in approaches down to 200ft.  Medical response teams are therefore able to safely access patients and airlift them to hospitals.

Besides the aviation domain, the improved performance provided by SBAS can be leveraged in the fight against the spread of COVID 19 through the provision of even more precise positioning data (in comparison with GNSS alone) for the applications already identified such as contact tracing and drone operations.

Africa is also active in the use of GNSS technologies but more infrastructure development is needed 

Some African countries have not been passive in using GNSS for the COVID 19 fight. South Africa, for example, has developed a contact tracing application based on Bluetooth and GNSS location technology to track infected people and to notify those who were in close proximity to them during the past 15 days. South Africa’s biggest telecom company Telkom joined hands with Samsung to assist the government in the fight against Covid-19 through contact tracing. Ghana also launched a COVID-19 Tracker application which in addition to incident tracking is being used to monitor self-quarantining individuals. Other countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia have also developed similar applications.

Ghana and Rwanda are also working with a US-based company called Zipline to transport COVID-19 tests, protective gear and other medical products to remote parts of their countries using Drones.

These examples of applications used in Africa as well as those in Europe, the US and other parts of the world should motivate other African countries to invest in the development of GNSS applications.  The implementation of Satellite-Based Augmentation systems with the support of the Joint Programme Office (JPO) through Africa-EU Satellite Navigation Cooperation will enable the derivation of customised solutions that meet Africa’s needs in the fight against COVID-19 and much more.

Promoting privacy and security in the use of applications

Despite the great potential of GNSS enabled applications in curbing COVID-19 spread, there have been growing concerns that the use of these various applications can infringe on an individual’s rights to privacy and security. Some of these applications can provide loopholes for hackers to gain access to private information and the centralized databases can serve as “honeypots” that attract cyber attackers and malicious actors. Other concerns pertain to governments being able to carry out real-time surveillance of its population that could turn intrusive as opposed to informative. Amnesty International, a renowned organization that focuses on human rights warned about privacy and security infringements after its security laboratory carried out an analysis of various contact tracing applications and discovered that a number of them ranged from, “bad to dangerous for human rights.”

It is therefore recommended that adoption of these applications is carried out amidst adequate legal protections, policies, privacy safeguards and guidelines. Specific guidelines, among others, include; voluntary subscription and opt-out to the applications, the use of applications that have embedded data protection, privacy and security controls, as well as the use decentralized storage to limit potential security and privacy breaches.

Bedan Thendu and Agnes Kobusinge are the Aviation applications and GNSS Operations Experts respectively at the EGNOS in Africa Joint Programme Office (JPO). The EGNOS in Africa Support Programme is a partnership between Africa and the European Union that is coordinating and supporting the implementation of seamless and sustainable satellite navigation solutions in Africa.