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Other Global Satellite Positioning Systems: It's Not Just GPS Anymore

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/31/2011

When we think of global navigation systems, the first such system that occurs to use is GPS. Often, it is the only thing that occurs to us at all. However, there are many other systems out there, some regional, some in development, but all critical to the future development of the technology.

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    Russian GLONASS

    GLONASS, the Russian system, was originally developed by the former Soviet Union starting around 1976, with the first satellites launched in 1982. As with the US GPS system, it was originally planned to primarily be used for military purposes. GLONASS was developed from a preceding global positioning system, Tsiklon.

    GLONASS was planned to have global coverage by 1991... though, as those aware of world history may note, certain political events prevented this from occurring. GLONASS did not achieve top priority even under the new Russian government, the last of the first generation satellites going up in 1995 and since then falling into disrepair along with the general depression of the Russian economy.

    In 2001, the Russian government made GLONASS a priority again, launching a series of second generation satellites that very year, and developing a third generation of satellites that were launched in 2009. In 2007, a decree was signed allowing the use of GLONASS for civilian purposes, opening up possibilities immensely.

    GLONASS currently consists of 22 satellites, of which only 18 are operational with 24 being required for complete global coverage. GLONASS continues to be a priority, and hopefully more satellites will be launched in 2010 to complete global coverage.

    It is planned to be complementary (or ideally, a full alternative) to GPS, COMPASS, and Galileo systems. Russia is also currently partnered with the Indian government to achieve global coverage. The Russian government is currently discussing the possibility of making the GLONASS signals more similar to those of Galileo and GPS so that commercial devices could be more cross-compatible. The Russian government is also currently discussing sharing GLONASS's military targeting capabilities with Cuba and Venezuela. A number of well-known commercial companies make use of GLONASS, including Magellan Navigation, Leica Geosystems and Trimble Inc.

    Development of GLONASS also will have powerful implications for Russians civilian. There are several state projects associated with implementing the technology in Russian daily life, including ERA, Emergency Reaction to Accidents (Russian ЭРА or Система экстренного реагирования при авариях). This will consist of automatic equipping of all automobiles and phones with GLONASS receivers to better enable emergency operators to locate accidents, to be launched in 2013. Social GLONASS, another project, will be applied to those who the government deems should be supervised, including the elderly, children, and those with poor vision.

    For those speakers of Russian, it is interesting to note that the Latinized form of the Russian acronym is the same as when it is translated into English: ГЛОНАСС, abbreviation of ГЛОбальная НАвигационная Спутниковая Система, Latinized GLObal'naya NAvigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema, translated GLObal NAvigation Ssatellite System. Funny world, eh?

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    European Union: Galileo

    Galileo, the GNSS project of the European Union, began development in 1999 as a joint project between several member nations of the EU. Since then, it has suffered a number of setbacks, particularly financial, as the European Commission has had difficulty securing funds for its development. The US government has also placed pressure on the EU to stop the project, as it wishes to retain a monopoly on GNSS systems for security purposes. As a result, the project has stalled multiple times, most critically in 2007, and the scale of the project has been reduced from 28 satellites to 22.

    Non-EU countries have also joined in the effort, including Israel, Morocco, and South Korea.

    However, it is intended to become fully operational on a global scale by 2013, with the first satellite being launched in late 2010. It will be either complementary to other GNSS systems like GPS, or fully independent if necessary. It is to be used for both for civilians and the military and, unlike the US GPS system, will be available at full precision for all.

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    China: Beidou & Compass

    The Beidou Navigation System, developed by China in the late 90s and launched between 2000 and 2003, is an experimental regional position system. It is regional only, using satellites in a geostationary orbit relative to China, consisting of 4 satellites. Even within China, it does not offer too much coverage, though some report it to be quite accurate.

    China in 2003 briefly considered to join the Galileo project, but then abandoned it in favor of developing its very own, independent global positioning system: Compass.

    Compass will consist of a constellation of 35 satellites when completed, a mix of geostationary and medium Earth orbits that hope to provide complete coverage of the planet. The first satellite was launched in 2007, and two others in 2009 and early 2010. Other than this, little is known about the launching plans or intentions of this system.

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    India: IRNSS

    IRNSS is developed by the Indian Space Research Organization, a part of the Indian government. This system is regional in nature, not global, and is largely being developed so that the US GPS system does not have complete monopoly on satellite positioning within India if a hostile situation arises. All development and construction has been taking place within India.

    This project is quite recent, approved in 2006 and aimed to be completed in 2012. The first satellite was launched in 2009. At current, it is planned that there be a total of 7 satellites placed in a geostationary orbit over India.

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    Japan: QZSS

    Cool acronym aside, this satellite system is a small regional one, intended to be an enhancement of the GPS system for within Japan. Development by the Japanese government began in 2002, and is planned to be fully operational by 2013 with the first satellite launching in 2010. It is intended for civilian use only.

    The name arises from the somewhat unique orbit that these satellites will take, a highly elliptical orit that will involve them being overhead in Japan for most of the day, hence “quasi-zenith.”

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    For more information on these systems, I recommend Wikipedia's pages on each: there are lots of good references cited throughout, and contain a good mixture of history, technical information, and politics, though they do require some updating. Also, keep an eye out on the news for updates regarding the development of these systems! It is a fast-changing and important area of technology, critical to both civilian and military use on a global scale.