GNSS advances in 2018 will still be subject to government credos

November 21, 2017  - By

We just went to press with the December issue of GPS World magazine, its cover story consisting of personal essays from the directing officers and architects of each global satnav system.

You’ll have to wait for your copy to arrive in the mail or the digital edition to land in your inbox to read those articles in full, but I’ll give you a sneak preview here — just enough to springboard my hypothesis that, yes, system operators build great systems, but they are still subject to the whims of their national governments.

And those governments are operating on increasingly divergent agendas that will bring consequences upon the respective GNSS industries.

The plots of the four articles by the effective CEOs of each GNSS are the same: what innovations were accomplished in 2017, and what new features to look for in 2018. But the themes differ. If you reflect at the end of each article, try to read between the lines, divine what message seems most important to the author — then distinctions surface.

In our December pages we hear from:

Col. Steve Whitney

Col. Steven Whitney, Director, Global Positioning Systems Directorate:
“The Air Force is already exploring new, emerging technologies and capabilities to even further advance the robustness of the GPS enterprise, with the vision that GPS will always remain the Gold Standard for the worldwide PNT community.”

Sergey Karutin, GLONASS designer general; Nicolay Testoedov, Director General, SC Information Satellite Systems; and Andrey Tulin, Director General, SC Russian Space Systems:
“The traditional GLONASS conception of signal-in-space accuracy is now being augmented by the user level performance estimation. Due to the fact that the signal propagation environment contributes a lot to the positioning error budget, it is obvious that users need information that would reduce the influence of signal propagation path on the positioning accuracy.”

From left: Sergey Karutin, Nicolay Testoedov and Andrey Tulin

Paul Verhoef

Paul Verhoef, Director of the Galileo Programme and Navigation-related Activities, European Space Agency:
“The world of mobile-device LBS is going to change in 2018, and it will be due to the availability of Galileo. It will not be the first time the partnership of ESA, the European Commission (EC) and the GSA has made a service available that has changed the nature of the marketplace. “

Changfeng Yang, Chief Architect of BeiDou Navigation Satellite System:
“BDS-related products have gained access to the markets of more than 70 countries and regions, more than 30 of which are along the (land-based) Belt and (maritime) Road (in line with the Belt and Road Initiative). Through joint applications with other compatible navigation satellite systems, BDS provides global users with diversified choices for better application experience.”

Changfeng Yang

I’m not suggesting that the directors of each satnav system are trying to accomplish different things. All share the goal of providing the highest quality product and service. I posit that the hands above these guiding hands, atop the top — that is, the national governments paying for each system and directing the directors — do indeed have different priorities.  Accuracy is not all that matters on the international scene, taken as a whole. Sound economies, vigorous markets, vibrant technologies, tradeable-upon intellectual property and highly trained corps of engineers all count for as much.

The respective governments’ priorities, which encompass much more than GNSS but surely have an effect upon it, may produce differing results for industry, markets and users. In that light I would bring to your attention a November 14 op-ed column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. I’ll return to this in a moment.

The most marked contrast in the “theme” or GNSS subtext of our December essays appears between the United States on the one hand and Europe and China on the other.

GPS appears focused on maintaining the Gold Standard of signals and on beefing up security, particularly for the military. Innovations such as the L2C signal, drawn up with significant if not predominant civil-sector input, will bring important growth and expansion of capabilities.  But aside from that, it appears that industry can be left to itself to take care of innovation once the space signal hits the Earth’s surface.

GLONASS communicates a desire to burnish its reputation for accuracy and relevance. Once pre-eminently second among GNSS, it need to bootstrap itself back into competition to secure its increasingly tenuous toeholds in foreign markets.

Galileo and BeiDou project clear messages of working closely with industry sectors to encourage and intensify use. For the governments of Europe and China, GNSS is an economic tool, not merely a political one.

Now for Friedman’s thoughts on the international scene, quickly excerpted in their most relevant glimpses on the GNSS landscape:

“We’re going through a change in the “climate” of globalization: from an interconnected world to an interdependent one; from a world of walls, where you build your wealth by hoarding resources, to a world of webs, where you thrive by connecting your citizens to the most flows of ideas, trade, innovation and education.”


“In response to a more interdependent world, China is deepening its trade ties to all the fast-growing Asian markets around it through its “One Belt, One Road” project.”


“China has embarked on a plan called “Made in China 2025” that’s plowing government funds and research into commercializing 10 strategic industries while creating regulations and swiping intellectual property from abroad to make them all grow faster. These industries include electric vehicles, new materials, artificial intelligence, integrated circuits, biopharmacy, quantum computing, 5G mobile communications, and robotics.”

The European Union is actively and aggressively pursuing many projects and mandates similar to those underway in China.

The U.S., not so much. Not even near. In an environment in which it currently imports engineers to fill yawning vacancies in its high-tech work force, how long before it is reduced to importing technology as well, and at what cost?

Hope to See You There. In early of 2018, I will attend both events below, and look forward to talking with as many readers as possible at each event.

Cognizant Autonomous Systems for Safety-Critical Applications Workshop
January 29, 2018. Reston, Virginia

Join a full day of expert presentations and discussions on the opportunities and challenges (technical, commercial, ethical and legal) associated with developing fully autonomous systems that are cognizant and trustworthy for safety-critical applications. Free; sponsored by the Institute of Navigation. Speakers from the National Science Foundation, Department of Transportation, Air Force Research Laboratory, Top Flight Technologies, University of California-Santa Barbara, Santa Clara University, The Ohio State University and more.

Munich Satellite Navigation Summit: GNSS — the key to autonomy?
March 5–7, 2018. Munich, Germany

This three-day international conference focuses on the latest developments in satellite-based navigation, gathering high-ranking speakers from industry, science and governments for a broad overview and differing perspectives. Topics include status and real-world results of Galileo; modernization of GPS, GLONASS and BeiDou; developments of QZSS and NavIC; the need for GNSS authentication; civil use of Galileo Public Regulated Service; legal aspects of GNSS; and autonomy within a single GNSS — still possible?

About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.