- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — Eight years late and billions over budget, Europe officials flipped the switch Thursday on a satellite navigation system meant to rival the U.S.-made GPS service that’s become a staple feature of smartphones and cars worldwide.

The Galileo system — named after the Italian engineer and astronomer — is designed to provide commercial and government customers with more precise location data than GPS.

Being able to accurately pinpoint a position is key to a growing range of products and systems, including real-time logistics, self-driving cars and drone delivery services.

Satellite systems such as GPS also play an important role in providing precision timing for financial transactions and energy grids.

The launch of the first 18 Galileo satellites was hit by delays and several failures. One satellite has stopped working and two others ended up in the wrong orbit.

But the European Space Agency managed to launch four satellites on a single rocket last month and expects to have a full complement of 24 satellites, plus spares, in orbit within four years.

The service was originally meant to begin service in 2008 at a cost of 3 billion euros ($3.1 billion), but the development and operation is now expected to cost 13 billion euros by 2020.

While GPS receivers are standard in millions of devices already, only a handful of gadgets support the Galileo system so far.

Galileo’s free consumer signal will provide location data with a precision of about a 1 meter (3 feet, 3 inches), compared to 5 meters (over 16 feet) or more for GPS. A premium service will eventually offer even greater precision to paying customers and government agencies such as police and firefighters.

The system is also designed to boost search-and-rescue operations by cutting the amount of time it takes to pinpoint distress beacons used by people lost at sea or in the wilderness.

Galileo is owned by the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, based in Brussels.

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