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Russia challenges US monopoly on satellite navigation

Russia challenges US monopoly on satellite navigation
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First Published: Wed, Apr 04 2007. 07 07 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Apr 04 2007. 07 07 PM IST
MOSCOW -- The days of their Cold War may have passed, but Russia and the United States are in the midst of another battle -- this one a technological fight over the US monopoly on satellite navigation.
By the end of the year, the authorities here say, the Russian space agency plans to launch eight navigation satellites that would nearly complete the country's own system, called Glonass, for Global Navigation Satellite System.
The system is expected to begin operating over Russian territory and parts of adjacent Europe and Asia, and then go global in 2009 to compete with the Global Positioning System of the United States.
Nor is Russia the only country trying to break the American monopoly on navigation technology. China has already sent up satellites to create its own system, called Baidu after the Chinese word for the Big Dipper. And the European Union (EU) has also begun developing a rival system, Galileo, although work has been halted because of doubts among the private contractors over its potential for profits. Russia's system is furthest along, paid for with government oil revenue.
What is driving the technological battle is, in part, the potential for many more uses for satellite navigation than the one most people know it for -- giving driving instructions to travelers. Businesses as disparate as agriculture and banking are integrating it into their operations. Satellite navigation may provide the platform for services like site-specific advertising, with directions that appear on cell phone screens when a user is walking, for example, near a Starbucks coffee shop or a McDonald's restaurant.
Sales of GPS devices are already booming. The global market for the devices hit $15 billion in 2006, according to the GPS Industry Council, a Washington trade group, and is expanding at a rate of 25% to 30% annually.
But what is also behind the battle for control of navigation technology is a fear that the US could use its monopoly -- the system was developed and is controlled by the military, after all -- to switch off signals in a time of crisis.
"In a few years, business without a navigation signal will become inconceivable," said Andrei G. Ionin, an aerospace analyst with the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, which is linked to the Russian defense ministry. "Everything that moves will use a navigation signal -- airplanes, trains, yachts, people, rockets, valuable animals and favorite pets."
When that happens, countries that choose to rely only on GPS, he said, will be falling into "a geopolitical trap" of American dominance of an important Internet-age infrastructure. The United States could theoretically deny navigation signals to countries like Iran and North Korea, not just in time of war, but as a high-tech form of economic sanction that could disrupt power grids, banking systems and other industries, he said. The US government's stated policy is to provide uninterrupted signals globally.
GPS devices, in fact, are at the center of the dispute over the Iranian seizure of 15 British sailors and marines. The British maintain that the devices on their boats showed they were in Iraqi waters; the Iranians have countered with map coordinates that it said showed they had been in Iranian waters.
Russia's project, of course, carries wide implications for armies around the world by providing a navigation system not controlled by the Pentagon, complementing Moscow's increasingly assertive foreign policy stance.
GPS and the American Lead
The United States formally opened GPS to civilian users in 1993 by promising to provide it continually, at no cost, around the world.
The Russian system is also calculated to send ripples through the fast-expanding industry for consumer navigation devices by promising a slight technical advantage over GPS alone, analysts and industry executives say. Devices receiving signals from both systems would presumably be more reliable.
President Vladimir V. Putin, who speaks often about Glonass and its possibilities, has prodded his scientists to make the product consumer friendly.
"The network must be impeccable, better than GPS, and cheaper if we want clients to choose Glonass," Putin said last month at a Russian government meeting on the system, according to the Interfax news agency.
"You know how much I care about Glonass," Putin told his ministers.
GPS has its roots in the American military in the 1960s. In 1983, before the system was fully functional, President Reagan suggested making it available to civilian users around the world after a Korean Air flight strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down.
GPS got its first military test in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and was seen as a big reason for the success of the precision bombing campaign, which helped spur its adoption in commercial applications in the 1990s.
The Russian system, like America's GPS, has roots in the Cold War technology to guide strategic bombers and missiles. It was briefly operational in the mid-1990s, but fell into disrepair. The Russian satellites send signals that are usable now but work only intermittently.
To operate globally, a system needs a minimum of 24 satellites, the number in the GPS constellation, not counting spares in orbit.
A receiver must be in the line of sight of no fewer than three satellites at any given time to triangulate an accurate position. A fourth satellite is needed to calculate altitude. As other countries introduce competing systems, devices capable of receiving foreign signals along with GPS will more often be in line of sight of three or more satellites.
Within the United States, Western Europe and Japan, ground-based transmissions hone the accuracy of signals to within a few feet of a location -- better than what could be achieved with satellite signals alone. The Russian and eventual European or Chinese systems, therefore, would make receivers more reliable in preventing signal loss when there are obstructions, like steep canyons, tall buildings or even trees.
Still, a Glonass-capable GPS receiver in the United States, Western Europe or Japan would not be more accurate than a GPS system alone, because of the ground-based correction signals. In other parts of the world, a Glonass-capable GPS receiver would be more reliable and slightly more accurate.
American manufacturers that are dominant in the industry could be confronted with pressure to offer these advantages to customers by making devices compatible with the Russian system, inevitably undermining the American monopoly on navigation signals used in commerce.
In this sense, the Russians are setting off the first salvo in a battle for an infrastructure in the skies. Russia sees a great deal at stake in influencing the standards that will be used in civilian consumer devices.
Now, only makers of high-end surveying and professional navigation receivers have adopted dual-system capability.
Javad Ashjaee, the president of Javad, said in an interview that wide adoption was inevitable because more satellites provided an inherently better service. "If you have GPS, you have 90 percent of what you need," he said. Russia's system will succeed, he said, "for that extra 10 percent."
For most consumers, she said, devices are reliable enough already. Growth in the industry is driven instead by better digital mapping and software, making what already exists more useful. Garmin's latest car navigator, for example, alerts drivers to traffic jams on the road ahead and the price of gas at nearby stations.
At home at least, the Kremlin is guaranteeing a market by requiring ships, airplanes and trucks carrying hazardous materials to operate with Glonass receivers, while providing grants to half a dozen Russian manufacturers of navigators.
Technically precise they may be, but even by Russian standards, some of the Russian-made products coming to market now are noticeably lacking in convenience features.
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First Published: Wed, Apr 04 2007. 07 07 PM IST
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