Space Programme

The big dipper

China’s rival to GPS becomes an investment star


Rocket with a Beidou-3 satellite

Two incidents in the 1990s are said to have convinced the Chinese government of the necessity of developing their own satellite positioning system.

In 1996 when the People’s Liberation Army was staging a military exercise during a period of tense cross-Straits relations, two missiles missed their targets by some distance, apparently because of faulty signals from GPS, the global positioning system developed by the United States.

Three years earlier Washington was also said to have disrupted similar GPS signalling to the Yinhe (or Milky Way), a Chinese container ship suspected of carrying chemical weapons to Iran. The ship was stranded in the Indian Ocean for three weeks as the American navy demanded to board it for an inspection.

Without access to GPS, one of the few navigation devices left to the crew: looking up at the Big Dipper star constellation, which is known as ‘Beidou’ in Chinese. But it will no longer be necessary for Chinese sailors to resort to such ancient techniques, its media proudly proclaimed late last month, after the launch of the final satellite of the domestically-developed Beidou Navigation Satellite, or BDS, as a rival to GPS.

According to Xinhua, this is the 55th Beidou launch and the 30th of the third-generation BDS programme to get into orbit. The first version (launched in 2000) could only cover China, while the second, completed in 2012, provided satellite services in the Asia-Pacific region. The latest launch completes its worldwide coverage.

Besides America’s GPS, the other global navigation networks are Russia’s GLONASS and European Galileo, although both of these operate at much smaller scale.

That pits the BDS as the only global competitor to its American-developed rival. Both systems are designed primarily for military purposes, something that People’s Daily recognised when it explained a former national vulnerability: “The manipulation of the US signals would paralyse any weapons solely relying on the GPS, which would lead to unbearable outcomes”.

But the Chinese say they also want their BDS to be a champion of civilian applications. By the end of last year 6.5 million freight vehicles, 30,000 postal and express vehicles and 80,000 buses in 36 cities across China were using it. More than 70% of China’s mobile phones depend on the local positioning system too.

That percentage could rise as the popularity of Chinese smartphones grow, not just in the domestic market but also overseas.

In a research report published last week, the Chinese Academy of Engineering said that integration of new 5G networks with BDS is likely to become one of the key technological advances of the coming decade.

For instance, the integration will be crucial in fields such as self-driving vehicles, which require accurate positioning signals sent at lightning speed.

Ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing is already experimenting with a version of the technology, announcing last week that it will launch a new breed of “robotaxis” in Shanghai. The trial service will offer free rides in autonomously-driven vehicles in designated areas. A human driver will still sit in the front seat, ready to take control in the event of an emergency, Didi said in a statement.

Caixin Weekly added that Didi raised $500 million from Softbank in May to fund its autonomous driving unit, and the completion of the Beidou system has also been prompting investor enthusiasm. A number of so-called “Beidou concept stocks” such as BDStar Navigation (see WiC216) have posted stellar gains this year, 21CN Business Herald notes.

However, not all that’s linked to the Beidou concept is shooting for the stars. For instance, last month two large real estate plots in Chongqing were put up for sale on Alibaba’s auction site. The project in question was called “Beidou Industrial Park”, 21CN reported. The original idea for the land had been to attract tech firms related to the satellite industry. But interest was limited and the business went bust a few years later…

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