China debuts Beidou as GPS alternative, global coverage by 2020

By on December 27, 2011, 6:30 PM

For over a decade, China has been developing its own world-wide positioning system in hopes of simultaneously distancing itself from foreign dependence and providing an alternative to GPS. China announced that this month's satellite launch marks the first time their positioning network has started offering navigational data. 

Beijing has named their GPS-alternative "Beidou", a Chinese word which represents a constellation known colloquially to most English-speaking Westerners as the "Big Dipper" or the "Plough". 

Beidou is currently comprised of 10 satellites but covers "only" most of continental Asia. In its current state, the network is slightly less accurate than GPS but aims to close that gap with additional satellites. China plans to extend Beidou's orbital network to a grand total of 35 satellites by 2020, ultimately achieving total global coverage with GPS-like precision. Six of those satellites will be launched next year.

Beidou is said to be freely, publicly and globally available just as GPS continues to be. Much like GPS though, access to Beidou can be limited at any time by the government which operates it.

Despite China's excitement, GPS alternatives are not unheard of. Russia has been operating GLONASS, its own global positioning system, for some time. However, in the face of tumultuous economic and political issues during the late 90s, GLONASS began to fall into disrepair. Thanks to Russia's renewed commitment to maintain the project though, the country recently caught the eye of Apple. Yes, the iPhone 4S uses GLONASS satellites to supplement GPS coverage. The Russian-born system has been and continues to be featured in a growing number of devices across the world and as of 2010, claims 100% global coverage.

Although still in its early stages, Europe also has its own satellite navigation system planned. The Galileo positioning system had its first satellite launched this year and is set to be finished by 2019. The network aims to be a highly accurate, dual-band alternative to American GPS and can be used to supplement or replace other navigational networks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is working on improving its existing GPS network to GPS III, a faster, more precise and more powerful version of the already ubiquitous standard. The first upgrades are slated to be launched in 2014.

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