Beidou China

China finished implementing BeiDou, its alternative to GPS

Among the majority of electronic devices that we have around us, those that use geolocation functions usually use GPS technology, which we know well closely. However, this system of American origin has other large satellite systems around it, such as the Galileo project of Europe and the Russian GLONASS.

Also joining the list is Beidou, a Chinese smil that, after a series of 44 satellite launches carried out since the 1990s, this week completed its global coverage infrastructure. With this step taken, in terms of location technologies, the Asian giant took the biggest step to become independent from the United States.

The context behind the China initiative

For economic and political reasons, we have seen the repercussions of the tight relationship that now exists between the United States and China in several areas.

Although the Global Positioning System (GPS) is global in scope, it is still a technology developed and maintained by the United States Department of Defense. This is why China, with the aim of guaranteeing its independence in this field, began its journey around the development of its own alternative: Beidou, a name taken from the local name given to the constellation Ursa Major.

For this purpose, since 1994 they prepared the first version of BDS (acronym under which mention is made of this navigation system), which remained operational on an experimental basis between 2000 and 2012. In that first stage, BDS covered the entirety of the territory of China and its surroundings. Gradually, the coverage expanded to Oceana and an important part of the Pacific and Indian oceans, thus giving life to its second generation.

During the first half of the 2000s, China had some rapprochements with the European Union, to join the Galileo project. However, these negotiations were unsuccessful.

Subsequently, since 2015, a third version of this system was implemented, which together with strengthening the satellite network, expanded its coverage beyond the limits of the Asia-Pacific region, covering the entire globe.

What makes Beidou special?

Last launch from Xichang Satellite Launch Center

There are 30 satellites that complete the infrastructure of the third generation of the Beidou positioning system. If we add those already put into orbit during the implementation of their predecessor generations, a network is completed with 55 operational satellites. Only those that make up the network corresponding to its latest generation, outnumber the GLONASS, Galileo and GPS satellites.

Although in principle, this technology does not differ so much from GPS, at the strategic level it represents for China greater autonomy and less exposure to espionage or intervention.

On a technical level, the Chinese navigation solution offers a better performance alternative. In its best coverage area, the Asia-Pacific region, the accuracy of its detections operates within a 10-centimeter margin, an index considerably sharper than the 30-centimeter guaranteed by GPS.

Its practical applications include its utilities in transportation, agriculture, forestry, fishing, public security, energy management, disaster prevention and mitigation, among other uses.

In China at least, the transition from GPS to local alternative might not be as complicated as it sounds. According to a report updated to December of last year, at that time 70% of the smart mobile phones present in the Chinese market already support this technology.

With this step, China entered the mainland to compete as equals with GPS, widely adopted in the Western world. Although it will take us time to see its massive implementation at a concrete level, especially at the hardware level, we already have a powerful precedent to keep under consideration.

Looking at the news from another angle, this patents China’s interests in not staying out of the new space race, especially after the media commotion generated by the recent SpaceX manned launch with NASA.