China to spend $9bn to expand its alternative to GPS

One of many aspects of the current technology war between China and the USA (see lead item) concerns positioning satellites. China is spending at least $9bn on an alternative to GPS, which will help in its overarching aim of reducing its reliance on US technology and services in future.

The fact that GPS satellites and their location data are controlled by the US Air Force is a source of nervousness for China, hence its investment in one of its largest ever space-related programs.

“They don’t want to depend on the US’s GPS,’’ Marshall Kaplan, a professor in the aerospace engineering department at the University of Maryland, told Bloomberg. “The Chinese don’t want to be subject to something that we can shut off.’’

The Beidou Navigation System is not just about China’s own security and independence, however. It is already in operation for China and some neighboring countries, but from 2020 it will be accessible worldwide and so could be an alternative to GPS as the basis of government and commercial services.

The new constellation is approaching critical mass after the launch of at least 18 satellites this year, including three this month. There are over 40 Beidou machines in operation, and there will be 11 more added in 2019.

China started developing Beidou in the 1990s and will spend an estimated $9bn to $10.6bn on it by 2020, according to a 2017 analysis by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The system eventually will provide positioning accuracies of one meter or less with use of a ground support system. GPS is typically accurate to less than 2.2 meters, but this can be improved to a few centimeters with augmentation systems.

Even from the point of view of addressing the huge Chinese economy, many vendors will need to adapt their products – smartphones, aeroplanes, vehicles and their chipsets – to support Beidou. Beijing-based NavInfo, which supplies Tesla, BMW and others, is predicting annual demand of 15m Beidou-supporting chips for autonomous vehicles.

Qualcomm has been supporting Beidou “for a long time” in car and wearables chips, as part of its campaign to build Chinese trust and sales by supporting local technologies and partners. Most Samsung handsets, and of course those from Chinese firms like Huawei and Xiaomi, support Beidou as well as GPS.

Other GPS alternatives include the European Union’s Galileo and Russia’s GLONASS.