Don’t Trust GPS? Try BDS! (Or … Not.)
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is, I would say, fairly well known by now, it being really the only way for us non-military folk to navigate throughout the world by satellite.
Or, at least, it was.
Now there’s a new player in town!
Yes, for those of you who don’t trust Uncle Sam (or is that Big Brother?) looking down on your every move through GPS, there’s a new player to the market: BDS.
The BeiDou Satellite System (BDS) is also officially known as Compass, a nice friendly-sounding GPS alternative. Err … that is … if you trust China’s government with your every move.
Okay, so maybe not so much of an improvement to most of the world then…
Which is okay really, as technically speaking, BDS doesn’t actually quite yet cover the whole of the world anyway. Or, really, much of anywhere outside of China.
GPS requires a minimum of 24 satellites to cover the world. There are actually somewhere around 30 GPS satellites in the sky. The number is somewhat debatable as not all of the birds are exactly 100% operational, and it being a government project, it frankly wouldn’t surprise me if there aren’t more military-only satellites supporting GPS for missile launches and such up there as well. But black ops aside, we have enough GPS satellites to get the job done for civilians the world over. Literally.
Whereas BDS, China’s official launch of Compass, the second stage of their satnav, only has a handful of birds in the sky, making coverage rather limited … if global is what you seek. Allegedly it works a right treat in China though.
Which is its purpose after all.
Technically speaking, alternatives to GPS aren’t new. A lot of countries aren’t exactly kosher about Uncle Sam being able to theoretically deny GPS service to anyone at any time. It could put a serious crimp into things like smart missiles and other military operations should the US decide to not support your GPS-based weapons anymore. And goodness knows what the US government could be doing to abuse the information available to them through GPS tracking. Hence the Russian military was the first to create their own GPS-alternative. During the cold war the Soviet Global Navigational Satellite System or GLONASS was operational to Russia’s military. In modern times however it’s fallen apart from disrepair, like so many things, and even though there’s a push to bring it back to life, reports are that it’s not exactly fully operational just yet. And certainly not available to civilians. Though it does allegedly have over 20 satellites in its network. (Though how many of those are fully working is anyone’s guess.)
Likewise over in Europe certain governments in the European Union unhappy with US control of GPS have launched their own satellites into orbit in the Galileo project. There are only three so far, but the Galileo program was designed to augment GPS instead of replace it, the intent to make hybrid devices. After all, if you can’t work with your allies, who can you trust? (You hear that you Frenchies? )
But China’s BDS is just not as much of a team player. Or perceived to be as safe, in an already trust-challenged market.
Will the BeiDou Satellite System gain your confidence? Unless you’re Chinese, I doubt it. (Actually, possibly even less if you are Chinese, if you happen to be a dissident, or one of those darned Tibetans like the Dalai Lama who just won’t accept Chinese rule.) Though certainly with the great rise in Chinese production and consumerism lately, that may not matter. The BDS will certainly have its own supportive market in China, if not throughout other Asian markets as well. Politically and geographically, potentially the Chinese BDS and the Russian GLONASS could even become merged much like the USA’s GPS and EU’s Galileo.
But the big question is, what of the cheap little electronic gizmos imported from Asia? Will many of our cellphones, laptops, and tablets now come with BDS instead of GPS? Will we be forced to choose? (Or forced to look very closely at product specs?) Or worse, will hybrids combining GPS and BDS become a new norm now that BDS has officially become available to civilian markets? (And for the conspiracy theorists out there: will they be hybrid devices whether we know it or not, secretly spilling the beans to the Chinese government through alleged GPS-only devices?)
In a time of great mistrust and greater political shenanigans and chest-beating, goodness only knows what the future of BDS holds in the hands of civilian markets.
One thing however is for certain: whether in the sky, or the massive army of location-refining supportive posts on the ground, GPS is certainly going to be hard to beat. It’s entrenched, and it has been repeatedly refined. So don’t toss out your GPS-based satnav just yet.