Space Programme

Moon ride

Dockless bikes to help drive China’s satellite navigation system’s ascent


Ofo bikes are found via Beidou

Cinema’s most famous encounter between the skies and a bike took place 36 years ago in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie E.T. In a famed scene the 10 year-old protagonist Elliott and his alien friend fly through the night sky pedalling on a BMX bike past a bright silhouetted moon.

That same link between the heavens and the humble bicycle was resurrected lately in China. The reason? As the country increasingly fills its cities and towns with millions of dockless hire bikes, a corollary boost is being given in the skies above to China’s home-grown satellite navigation system, known as Beidou.

‘Beidou’ is the name the Chinese give for the asterism known in the US as the Big Dipper and the Plough in the UK (it features seven stars shaped like a ladle). For the ancient Chinese, it was used to discover directions and identify location. As a name, Beidou is therefore apt as a rival to GPS, the global positioning system established by the US and the less internationally dominant Russian equivalent GLONASS.

First tested in 2002 and finally operational in December 2011, Beidou was a key part of the space programme that Deng Xiaoping launched in 1986 to close the technology gap with the West. This lofty ambition is getting closer to realisation today, especially after a pact was inked in early December between Beijing and Washington to promote interoperability between GPS and Beidou. (An earlier deal was also signed by Beidou with GLONASS.)

The pact, said Global Times, will allow both countries to take full advantage of all their existing satellites. “It is like subscribers of one telecom company now using a competing carrier and roaming between the two networks at no extra cost,” a Beidou expert explained.

Ran Chengqi, Beidou’s spokesperson, noted at a press conference last year that over 50 million chips connected to Beidou’s system have been sold in the past five years. Their prices have also come down from more than Rmb200 ($30.77) a piece to Rmb6, now matching those of a GPS chip.

Beidou-based tracker chips have thus far been installed in 19,000 delivery vehicles, 1,500 trucks, 33,500 taxis, and 21,000 buses in the capital city, plus in 4.8 million dangerous goods vehicles and 40,000 fishing vessels nationwide.

But to extend Beidou’s reach globally, China is partly counting on its on-demand bikes that are being used in at least 20 countries around the world. Unlike older systems that mandate that bicycles should be parked at fixed stations, these bikes are tracked by satellites via users’ phones, and secured by locks linked to mobile apps (see WiC339).

While Tencent-backed Mobike is still relying on GPS, its archrival Ofo has agreed to apply Beidou-enabled smart locks to its fleet. Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province, or the so-called Jing-Jin-Ji region, will pioneer the first batch of Beidou bike locks.

“The Beidou locks are tailor-made for bicycles in the sharing-economy sector,” said Ofo CEO Dai Wei. “As we further venture into overseas markets, we will help bring the Beidou navigation system to other countries in future,” he added.

On the back of a growing range of applications for self-driving cars, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G networks, China’s satellite market – growing at 15% annually since its inception – has the potential to reach Rmb400 billion in revenues by 2020, according to Ran. That compares with Rmb250 billion last year, according to 21CN Business Herald which says 80% of that was accounted for by state-owned Beidou.

Analysts suggest Beidou still lags behind GPS in terms of its standalone geographical coverage, but the Chinese in turn claim their system has technological advantages: it can handle text messaging and can track to within millimetres.

China is preparing to launch another 16 satellites to cover Belt and Road countries this year. And by 2020 Beidou will boast full worldwide coverage with a total of 35 satellites.

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