Back to Blog

BeiDou: China’s Newest Version of GPS

What is BeiDou?
BeiDou is China’s global positioning system, completed in the summer of 2020. The system’s final satellite was launched on June 23, 2020 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the Sichuan Province. A historical milestone for China, the launch was broadcasted live and viewed by millions. You can see the entire launch on SciNews’ YouTube Video

Similar to other GNSS systems in Russia, the United States, and the EU, BeiDou is used to communicate with devices here on earth. China may be late to the space race, but BeiDou is an impressive GNSS system that provides location services to China’s millions of citizens, as well as other countries such as Thailand.

History of BeiDou
BeiDou has been in development since 1994, and became a significant part of China’s aerospace programming in 1996. To read more about how GPS technology evolved, take a look at our article on the history of GPS. Since then, it has been important for China, as well as other worldwide countries, to have their own GNSS systems. The first BeiDou satellites in orbit were launched in 2000. Although China began developing BeiDou in response to the United States’ control of GPS technology, the United States has supported the development of BeiDou. In 2017 the two countries reached an accord, the US-China Civil GNSS Cooperation Dialogue, which means that the two systems can share frequencies and transmit information along the same bandwidths. The most significant uses of GNSS systems are not military; huge sectors of worldwide economies rely on GNSS for navigation and logistics. By reaching this agreement, the United States and China affirmed their mutual need for functional, proprietary GNSS systems, and agreed to leave well enough alone—for now. 

BeiDou vs. GPS vs. GLONASS vs. Galileo
BeiDou and GPS are not the only rival GNSS systems. GLONASS and Galileo, owned respectively by Russia and the EU, have also been operational for almost as long as GPS. The USSR began developing GLONASS in 1976. Currently there are 24 GLONASS satellites and 30 Galileo satellites, which provide location information globally (not just in Russia or Europe). Galileo can provide more accurate data to users than GPS due to SA (Selective Availability), which allows the United States to slightly alter GPS signals at will. GLONASS offers other advantages, like better accuracy at high latitudes (far north and far south) because of the angle of satellite placement. For these reasons, GLONASS and Galileo are complementary to GPS, which still offers the best coverage to most global citizens. Competition between all four GNSS systems is stiff, but at the end of the day, which system suits which user will depend on more factors than their nationality. The user’s location on earth, and how the user intends to apply the location data, also play a part.

Future of BeiDou
BeiDou differs from the other GNSS systems in one significant way: two-way communications. Unlike Galileo, GPS, and GLONASS satellites, BeiDou satellites can receive information (including text messages) from its connected devices, which include a full 20% of Chinese cell phones. Some experts consider this capability to be a security concern, as theoretically malware or other false information could be uploaded to the satellites (though the feasibility of this concept has yet to be proven). Another concern is that anyone who uses BeiDou will reveal information from their device to the Chinese government, in keeping with what United States citizens consider intrusive technological practices. At the same time, cell phones in the United States, the EU, and Russia are all already trackable because they ping off towers; if you are concerned about sharing your location information, no matter where in the world you are, you probably should not carry a cell phone in your pocket (or utilize any GNSS-connected device, such as a car with a navigation system, a computer, etc). China says that the two-way capability allows users to communicate their locations in emergencies, and receive notification that help is on the way. Similar search-and-rescue capabilities are available with Galileo.

The four GNSS systems both compete and cooperate, in accordance with complex global politics. The only certainty is that all four systems are constantly improving, in response to demand for better navigation technologies worldwide. More accurate data and more advanced capabilities are on the horizon for many of earth’s citizens. The only question is who will get there first.