Europe, U.K. make GPS progress, China goes public with Beidou system

China has officially opened up their domestic satellite navigation network, called 'Beidou', for public use in the Asian-Pacific region. Russia, the E.U. and the U.K. are also working on even larger GPS projects of their own.

This new GPS system created by China will operate as an alternative to the current U.S. NavStar Global Positioning System (GPS).

The NavStar system that we use today was initially made inaccurate for the public due to defense concerns by the military.  That soon changed when President William “Bill” Clinton signed a law in 1996 allowing GPS navigation to be not only free but more accurate for public use. Since GPS came about for the masses it has become a mainstay around the globe, and it is found on all manner of devices like smartphones, automobiles, guided rockets and cruise ships. 

China saw a need of their own and now offers the use of a new GPS system for to the public. Available only in the Asian-Pacific region for now, this new ‘Beidou’ navigation system, which is named after the Chinese word for the Big Dipper, is said to be as accurate as the U.S. NavStar satellite system widely in use today.

According to the China Satellite Navigation government office, the system will be targeting an estimated 80% share of the Chinese market in the next 7 years.   The office also projected that the service maybe be widely available as a worldwide alternative as well.

Currently there are only 16 Beidou satellites in orbit (and 4 experimental satellites); however, China claims that another 40 satellites will be placed in orbit in the next decade or so.

The drawbacks on the Beidou system are that the receiver chips are far more costly than the current GPS system receiver chips.  Nevertheless, China doesn’t seem too concerned about the cost of the chips.  They are basing their optimism on the fact that production costs for the new technology will fall as production technology advances and more manufacturers begin wanting to use an alternative system.

The Beidou system is capable of finding one’s location within 10meters (33ft), and monitors an object’s velocity within 0.2 meters per second.  It can also synchronize signals to within 50 nanoseconds.

While China is advancing their technology and infrastructure by leaps and bounds, they are not alone in their quest for a competitive GPS system.  Currently Russia and the European Union have systems that are in place or in progress.  The United Kingdom is also working on a new GPS that doesn’t need satellites and uses radio signals that are currently being transmitted by radio or cell towers.

Russia’s GLONASS system currently consists of 21 satellites in 3 orbital planes, with 3 on-orbit spares. The ground control for the system is controlled entirely in the former Soviet Union territory with tracking stations located in Eniseisk, St. Petersburg and other locations.

The E.U. is working diligently on their ‘Galileo’ navigation system, but it is only in its early stages with a mere three satellites in operation. And while they have run tests on signals with the satellites, they will need a minimum of four satellites in order for a navigation system to work properly

And while the E.U. may be working on a system for Europe, the U.K. is creating a system of its own that may rival any current system in place. What is really interesting about this system is that it does not need satellites, but uses existing signals being transmitted, which includes signals for radio, TV, WiFi, and mobile phones.  It is called the “Navigation via Signals of Opportunity” or NAVSOP, and is being developed by the British defense contractor, BAE systems.

This novel technology will be able to calculate your position by making use of the thousands of signals already in place all around us at any given time instead of relying on satellites.  The NAVSOP exploits the wide array of signals and is better able to resist any interference by jamming or GPS spoofing.  BAE also says that this navigation system can “learn from signals that are initially unidentified to build an ever more accurate and reliable fix on its location.” More importantly, the NAVSOP system's infrastructure is in place all around us. 

While all of the GPS innovations seem to be a country or region's way of competing with the U.S. NavStar system, it's really much more complicated.  NavStar is free and any developer can tap into the signals coming off those satellites.  So why would a nation want their own system?  It's quite simple really, while parading as a means to compete in the market we must remember that GPS is an important tool in times of war.  If one nation were to be the only holder of GPS technology, they could easily turn off the system. Now with the former Soviet Union, the E.U., China and the U.S. all with their own systems, it evens up the battlefield.   It will be very interesting to see what types of advances other nations make in the coming years in regards to their own GPS.