EU PROTECTS > Our Safety > Finding the needle in a haystack: How the EU uses satellites to save lives

“It was a day that started well and ended badly. But without the satellite technology and the rescue crews, it could have been much, much worse.”

José Dias

All around the world, lives are saved every day thanks to satellite location. In Europe, the EU’s Galileo satellites are involved in 90% of rescue operations. Whether it’s fishermen at sea or hikers stranded on a mountain, the system can help locate anyone in need of assistance in a remote location. In August 2017, during an overnight voyage from Madeira to mainland Portugal, a Belgian yacht collided with an unknown object. The damage had caused a leak, and it was only a matter of time before the boat would sink. The 2 sailors launched a life raft and sent a radio distress signal, which was detected by EU satellites. Belgium and Portugal were immediately alerted and sent rescue teams. 

From emergencies at sea to road trips, from smartphones to sporting events, the EU’s Global Satellite Navigation System (known as ‘Galileo’) is used every day in countless situations.

Finding the needle in a haystack: How the EU uses satellites to save lives

In emergencies, the speed and accuracy of the EU’s Global Satellite Navigation System can save precious time. When a Belgian yacht was sinking off the coast of Portugal, teams in Portugal, Belgium and Morocco relied on EU satellites to pinpoint the boat and prepare a rescue mission. 

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José Dias


“Two days after setting sail from Madeira, we heard a loud bang – we’d hit something. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves up to our knees in water.”

“That’s when I activated the emergency radio alert on our boat, which was picked up by the EU’s Galileo satellites. A container ship came to our rescue, followed by the Portuguese Air Force.”

“I watched my boat sink from the bridge of the container ship. It was sad, as I had built it myself over the course of 10 years, but fortunately my wife and I weren’t injured.”

“The rescue was really quick. I don’t think it could have gone better.”

 - José Dias

Dries Boodts

Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre – Oostende


“That night, the emergency radio signal from the yacht was sent to us via the COSPAS-SARSAT Mission Control Centre in Toulouse, France. A Belgian boat was in trouble quite far from the Portuguese coast, so we sent the alert to our counterparts in Lisbon – the nearest rescue base to the yacht.” 

“Portugal has an excellent search and rescue unit, and they kept us up to date as the operation progressed.”

“The EU’s satellite signals are extremely fast and highly accurate.”

 - Dries Boodts

Lt João Pedro Janicas

Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre – Lisbon


“We used the EU’s Galileo alert to mark the Belgian yacht’s exact location. We immediately contacted a nearby container ship to ask for help and sent a plane and a helicopter. By 02:12, our team had airlifted the 2 sailors into a helicopter and were taking them back to shore.” 

“All this was possible thanks to real-time cooperation between our team in Lisbon, Galileo’s control centre in France, and Belgian and Moroccan rescue services.”

“If a boat signal can be picked up by Galileo satellites, the rescue is more likely to go well.”

 - Lt João Pedro Janicas​

Xavier Maufroid

Galileo Search and Rescue Service, European Commission


“Being in an emergency can be extremely scary, but our satellites are part of a global search and rescue system which can locate people in distress, no matter the distance. On 13 August 2017, Galileo intercepted the Belgian boat’s distress signal and, in under 5 hours, the couple were brought to safety.”

“In Europe, so much relies on Galileo’s location services – our smartphones, transport, logistics, telecommunications and energy services, for instance.” 

“I work on the satellite system that helped locate the Belgian boat and bring those people to safety.”

 - Xavier Maufroid

Fiammetta Diani

Italian, European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency


“The Search and Rescue service is just one of Galileo’s functions. More broadly, Galileo is a pioneering, highly innovative EU project that delivers services worldwide. Today, when you use maps, taxi apps, mobile payment apps, you are using Galileo services. They are available to everyone across Europe through devices such as smartphones and vehicle navigation systems. With Galileo we are safer and at the cutting edge of satellite innovation.”

“With Galileo, we bring rocket science to everybody by creating really useful services.”

 - Fiammetta Diani

Did you know?

Stronger together

Thanks to the EU budget, we can help scientists and researchers join forces in EU-wide projects such as Galileo. It makes sense to pool funds for ambitious initiatives that no EU country could carry out on its own.

A global reach

Europe’s Global Satellite Navigation System (referred to as ‘GNSS’ or ‘Galileo’) provides precise data that powers a range of positioning and timing information services worldwide. Galileo is also Europe’s contribution to COSPAS-SARSAT, the international organisation that unites 44 countries to locate and rescue people in emergencies, wherever they are.


The average number of lives saved every day thanks to the COSPAS-SARSAT network. With an increasing speed of detection and accuracy of positioning, this number is expected to grow.


The number of Galileo satellites currently orbiting the Earth. By 2020, there will be a total of 30 in our skies. Each Galileo satellite has a wingspan of 15 metres, weighs around 750kg, and will be in orbit for 12 years.

Safety net

A Galileo-enabled ‘e-call’ to the emergency services can be made either manually or automatically in case of a serious accident.


The number of smartphones that currently use Galileo, including models from all major brands. Find out if you’re using Galileo every day at


Some of them may even come from your country.

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