China’s GPS Alternative, Beidou Reaching Completion Later This Month

Farai Mudzingwa Avatar

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is one of those things most people (myself included) rarely question. For example, I knew it exists, and I knew it’s used in navigation but beyond that, I wasn’t really aware of who are the people behind it or the fact that an alternative to GPS could actually exist.

Anyway, China has been working on such an alternative and they are calling it the Beidou Navigation Network. Work on the network began in the 1990s and was motivated by a longing by Chinese authorities to wean themselves off of American technology. The first Beidou satellites were launched back in 2000, with more recent launches in 2012 and 2015.

With this month’s launch, Beidou will now have 35 satellites in orbit compared to the GPS’s 31. The satellite network is expected to offer the following benefits;

  • Securing Chinese military communications;
  • avoiding the risk of disruption to GPS in the extreme event of conflict with the US;
  • Improved weapons targeting and guidance;
  • Higher accuracy compared to GPS;

Beidou was obviously designed a few decades after GPS, so it has had the benefit of learning from the GPS experience.

It has some signals that have higher bandwidth, giving better accuracy. It has fewer orbit planes for the satellites, making constellation maintenance easier.

Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research

When is this being launched?

The 35th and final satellite will be rocketing out of earth “within the next few weeks”. Needless to say there isn’t a specific timeline of when the network will be going up.

Who does this affect globally?

Beidou Navigation Network related services such as port traffic monitoring, disaster mitigation, including precision farming, digital construction, and smart port construction have been used in 120 countries.

The countries who have gotten access to these services are part of the Belt and Road initiative which could mean Zim is a part of those countries or will be at some point.