Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Friday, 2 April 2010 01:09 UK

Glonass: Has Russia's sat-nav system come of age?

By Katia Moskvitch


Russian space chief on sat-nav system

With the Glonass satellite-navigation constellation nearly complete, Russia's plan to wean itself off the US Global Positioning System (GPS) appears to be coming to fruition.

But Moscow now says it wants the Russian system to work hand-in-hand with GPS rather than being a direct competitor.

A major Russian producer of navigation technology, KB Navis, also claims that it has developed the world's first revolutionary chipset capable of receiving signals from the GPS, Glonass and other navigation systems.

The head of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) said his country had chosen to go down a path of integrated compatibility with the platform operated by its former Cold War foe, as well as with the European Union's Galileo system and China's Compass network.

Glonass satellite at Baikonur Cosmodrome in December 2009 (Getty)
At least 24 Glonass satellites are required for global coverage

"We now use a two-signal receiver that supports both GPS and Glonass. For instance, in the northern latitudes getting a GPS signal is problematic - we therefore use the Russian system," Anatoly Perminov, the chief of Roscosmos, said in an exclusive interview with BBC News.

"This makes our receivers a lot more accurate and reliable.

"Moreover, we are now working towards reaching similar compatibility with Europe's Galileo and hopefully with China and India as well."

But Glonass is also vital for national security, he added, so that America does not deliberately alter or blur Russia's GPS signal - for instance, during a military conflict. One of the times such allegations surfaced was during the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008.

The Russian navigation technology may be more accurate and reliable but is it available to ordinary people, keen on finding their way around?

At first intended for army use in the late 1970s, the Glonass Global Navigation Satellite System later became a dual military and civilian project. Just like GPS, it determines an object's exact terrestrial position using satellite signals from space.

With 18 functional satellites in orbit and three more positioned to start working in the coming weeks, Glonass now covers the entire territory of Russia and more than two-thirds of the Earth. To ensure global coverage, there should be at least 24 satellites and Moscow has promised to get there by the end of 2010.


Sat-nav systems determine a position by measuring the distances to a number of known locations - the spacecraft constellation in orbit

In practice, a sat-nav receiver will capture atomic-clock time signals sent from the satellites and convert them into the respective distances

A sat-nav device will use the data sent from at least four satellites to get the very best estimate of its position - whether on the ground or in the sky

The whole system is monitored from the ground to ensure satellite clocks do not drift and give out timings that might mislead the user

But the road to success, especially on a commercial scale, has been bumpy - not many Russians, let alone foreigners, have a Glonass-supporting navigation device in their cars or use other gadgets like mobile phones or cameras with a Glonass chipset that in any case for now only exists as part of an experimental series.

The Soviet Union launched its first navigation satellite in October 1982, in the midst of the Cold War and a space and arms race. By that time, the Americans had already sent up several of their Navstar GPS satellites, which later became known simply as GPS (Global Positioning System).

In the early years of Glonass's existence, a total of 43 satellites sped into orbit, with the authorities aiming for global coverage by 1991. That was the year the Soviet Union fell apart, and despite previously ambitious goals, by that time there were only 12 functional Glonass satellites circling the planet.

Putin's initiatives

Even though the state managed to complete the constellation a few years later, during those turbulent post-perestroika years the Russian economy suffered a major blow and so did the funding of the entire Glonass project.

"There was simply not enough money to keep the system afloat, and there's no secrecy about that," explained Mr Perminov.

President Vladimir Putin examines Glonass equipment in 2007 (AFP)
Vladimir Putin was one of the recipients of a Glospace device

One by one, satellites went out of order, leaving the monopoly to the US. By then, GPS had become the only really functional global navigation system, available to the US military and to the public worldwide.

Things turned around for Glonass when Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. His government made the revival of the system one of its top priorities.

More satellites went up, Russian engineers and scientists began developing many new Glonass-related projects and improving old ones - from a fancy tracking collar for Putin's black Labrador, Koni, to ballistic missile tracking, electronic bracelets for criminals under house arrest and transport monitoring.

Podolsk, a tiny Russian town just outside Moscow, is one of the places where police cars have been equipped with a dual GPS/Glonass tracking device. According to official statistics, the initiative has helped keep a closer eye on the ranks and most importantly - bring down the crime rate.

Dispatchers at the police monitoring centre use satellite signals to locate police cars on screens and direct the nearest officer to a location much more quickly.

Russian sat-nav almost complete

"Once, there was a theft on Lenin Square - someone stole a mobile phone from a girl," says policeman Vladimir Zhukov, driving his Russian version of a jeep, which is equipped with a Glonass sensor.

"We were working nearby. Thanks to video cameras, at the monitoring centre they saw everything and determined by Glonass that we were the closest car to the place. And we got the guy!"

It was late in the first decade of this millennium that the authorities finally decided to let ordinary Russians get a sense of global navigation in a country where, until recently, most maps were deliberately made with huge discrepancies for national security reasons and out of fear of invasion.

The first commercial Russian-made navigation device for cars - Glospace-SGK 70 - appeared in stores across the country in 2007. Almost twice as big as an average GPS device, it came with no internal battery, a much greater energy use and with a costly price tag of over $500.

Tables turning?

Mikhail Fadeev, an independent expert in navigation technologies, believes that Glospace was little more than a publicity stunt. After all, only a few thousand devices were sold over the last couple of years - most to navigation enthusiasts, he says, adding that this year, the mechanism is not on sale at all.

"Glospace doesn't work very well and honestly I wouldn't call it a real commercial product. I think that it was rather a PR-move as these devices were presented to people like Putin, Patriarch Alexii (primate of the Russian orthodox church) and the head of Roscosmos," Mr Fadeev says.

Mikhail Fadeev (BBC)
We shouldn't forget that it's a national, Russian system, and our people are patriots
Mikhail Fadeev
Independent sat-nav expert

One of the reasons for the high price is the receiver inside Glospace. It is no tiny chipset like the one used for GPS, but a rather big and expensive module that costs just under $100 - similar to that of an entire GPS unit. Add to this the other elements of the device, and the final price jumps five-fold.

Besides, Mr Fadeev adds, the Glospace receiver would not fit in an ordinary mobile phone, a camera or a portable navigation device, which explains the total absence of this market segment of the Russian navigation system.

But the expert believes that with the right approach to its commercialisation, the tables may yet turn for Russia's navigation technology.

The devices may prove to have not only functional benefits - because of the ability to support both GPS and Glonass - but also marketing advantages.

"We shouldn't forget that it's a national, Russian system, and our people are patriots. So I think that if such a device appears, it might have commercial success but only if it's similar to GPS in terms of technical characteristics and price range," Mr Fadeev says.

Multi-system receivers

And it seems that the day of next-generation Glonass receivers is approaching fast.

Russian company KB Navis claims it has created the world's first chipset smaller than a penny for a new generation of multi-signal navigation devices that, the company claims, are bound to enjoy commercial success both in Russia and abroad.

"At the moment, we're finishing the development of a module of a new series. They can receive the signals of four systems: Glonass, GPS, Galileo and Chinese Compass. The size, energy consumption, potential for mass production and price are comparable to GPS modules," said the head of the company's business unit, Georgy Shulgin.

Proton rocket launches three Glonass-M satellites into orbit on 14 December 2009 (AFP)
Russia wants to achieve compatibility with other sat-nav systems

The chipset still exists only as part of an experimental series, but Mr Shulgin said the company was planning to start mass production by the middle of the year.

"These chipsets will be the basis of new navigation devices, whose parameters and characteristics will correspond to those of GPS," explained Mr Shulgin.

He added that the price of a finished product would also be much lower than that of Glospace and similar to GPS.

A number of foreign companies had already signed contracts with KB Navis to buy these new modules, he said.

This may sound promising for Russia's system, but whether or not Glonass will really help ordinary people find their way around will also depend on other factors - like the number of functional satellites in orbit.

The Kremlin is currently promising global coverage by the end of this year. Many observers will be watching to see if Russia delivers.

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