With ambitions to rival GPS (a global positioning system developed to a US standard), China’s Beidou System (BDS) opened for commercial use late last year. A former military technocrat is leading the efforts to promote the new technology.
Zhou Ruxin joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after graduating from Nankai University in 1983. His early career focused on research at the Academy of Military Sciences, as well as some time at the General Armaments Department. Zhou also wrote a thesis on how American GPS know-how helped it win the first Gulf War.
When China began developing its own satellite navigation system in 1994 Zhou was put in charge. The company, owned by the PLA, funded itself by selling related applications such as tracking systems for bank trucks. But in 1999 Beijing banned the PLA from commercial activities. Zhou opted to retire from the army, founding BDStar Navigation.
BDStar was initially restricted to distributing foreign positioning applications in China. But in 2000 the first Beidou-1A satellite was launched and Zhou convinced the PLA to open up some of its bandwidth for civilian use, getting a licence to operate “value-added telecom services” (think sat-nav for cars). State funding followed, and BDStar’s business took off.
It went public in 2007 and currently has a market worth of Rmb6 billion ($985 million). Zhou owns half the company.
In a planning blueprint published last month, the State Council forecast that China’s satellite positioning market is set to double to Rmb200 billion by 2015 and will double again by 2020. By then BDS is also expected to have full global coverage, easing Chinese concerns about reliance on the GPS system.
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“Imagination is the only thing that bounds Beidou’s potential,” Zhou proclaims. Usage is growing. More then 40,000 fishing boats operating off China’s southern coast – an area with disputed sovereignty – have installed BDS applications. The company is picking up share in the sat-nav market for cars and lorries. And it is also building a network of stations in Pakistan, the fourth Asian country to adopt the Chinese satellite navigation system this year.
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