Russia’s Glonass satellite navigation system is rapidly becoming a competitor to the USA’s Global Positioning System. Journalist Piers van den Burgh looks at where it has come from and what it could become.
Russian technocrats recently showed off a dog that had a global positioning device embedded in its collar. The reason for this display was that Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, had asked for something that would make sure his own pet dog could be found if it ran away. The collar used Russia's own satellite navigation system Glonass, which is rapidly becoming a workable consumer technology.
While the collar was more of a gimmick, it showed that Russia is capable of designing and manufacturing a range of satellite navigation devices for consumer markets.
NAVIS made the collar and is a supplier of satellite navigation systems for the Russian military and civilian customers. The company now wants to expand its products abroad and challenge the dominant global positioning system (GPS) of the USA, which is the only fully functioning global navigation satellite system in the world.
Ahead of the competition
Russia is not the only country in the world that has designs on creating its own system. The Europeans have their up-and-coming Galileo system; China has its proposed COMPASS; and India its IRNSS. Galileo is in its early stages with 11 industrial groups now in the final bidding for the contracts to build the system.
In contrast, Glonass is very much flying. The Indian government has joined as partners in the project and by the end of the year, Russia hopes to have a further six satellites in orbit to add to the 12 already there. By 2011 there will be at least 30 satellites in place. These satellites will provide navigation services for the whole of the Russian Federation, but also for worldwide coverage. Moscow is pumping money into Glonass with US$418.25 million in 2007 and a further US$2.6 billion this year allocated under specific funding for promoting the technology.
However, at the moment Glonass has few followers outside Russia. It has been suggested as a VIP navigation system and as a back-up for GPS and eventually Galileo. The only countries likely to take up the system anytime in the future are former allies of the Soviet Union, such as Cuba and Belarus, and new political friends in Venezuela.
Where does its future lie?
The history of Glonass as the positioning system for Russian nuclear missiles doesn't help it either, although to be fair, GPS had a similar initial function. The recent clash with Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia hasn't enhanced the trust in Russia over politically sensitive and strategic systems. One of the delays to Glonass has been that Russia has kept its satellites positioned in orbit to maximise its ability to use the system by the military in the troubled Chechnya region of Russia.
Glonass will have a future within Russia as the Russian government is drafting a new law on navigation services, which may give the system a boost with domestic consumers. Previous legislation, put into law in 2005, aimed to get Glonass fitted to vehicles in Russia by the beginning of 2009. That will now not happen, with targets being pushed back several years and at least four years for aviation.
The new regulations will aim to open up satellite navigation after years of restrictions on coverage near military sites, and make it as free as GPS. When this happens Glonass will come of age.
The other boon is the rapid expansion of car ownership in Russia. Predictions are that Russia will soon become one of the biggest car markets in Europe after years of under development. With that explosion in ownership will come many more Glonass users.
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