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Satellite Navigation New Systems Could Bring New Era For Civil Users

By | June 1, 2007

      An increase in the number of navigation satellites orbiting the globe promises to usher in a new era of signal availability and accuracy. But it will take the creativity of equipment makers and consumers, as well as technological advances in chips and receivers, in order for users to take full advantage of these new and more powerful signals.

      The GPS constellation remains the standard-bearer of satellite navigation systems, but increasing reliance on a system owned and operated by the U.S. military continues to make many countries uneasy. In response, more systems that will complement and possibly provide an alternative to GPS are being developed. While these systems may alleviate fears that the U.S. government could restrict access to GPS signals that have become crucial to many civilian users, the additional signals also provide an opportunity to develop new services, industry officials and analysts say.

      The most high-profile satellite navigation system that promises to offer an alternative to GPS — at least on paper — is Europe’s Galileo constellation. The system is intended to operate as a commercial endeavor free from government control, with funding being split between government and private entities. Technologically, Galileo looks to be on schedule. The Galileo In Orbit Validation Elements (GIOVE)-A test satellite began transmitting signals in January 2006.

      However, things are not going as smoothly on the operational and administrative side. The European Parliament has pressured the consortium responsible for developing and operating Galileo to solve their disagreements and move the program forward on a schedule that calls for  the constellation to be fully operational by 2011. There have even been calls to eliminate the private funding element in order to halt some of the squabbling among the companies and get Galileo back on track.

      Other countries also have systems in various stages of development and deployment. Russia plans to add six satellites to its Glonass satellite navigation constellation before the end of 2007, according to reports, which will bring the constellation to 18 satellites and provide full coverage over Russia. By 2009, Glonass should have 24 spacecraft in operation and be able to provide service around the globe. China intends to have its Beidou Navigation System providing domestic coverage in 2008 and hopes to also turn the constellation into a global system. The first spacecraft in Japan’s regional Quasi-Zenith Satellite System is scheduled to be launched in 2008, and the Indian Space Research Organisation has unveiled plans to develop its own satellite navigation system — the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System — in order to ensure it has independent access to navigation signals that the country considers vital to future economic development.

      “We have seen in 2006 the confirmation of the strategic importance of navigation,” Antoine Bouvier, CEO of Paris-based EADS Astrium, a member of Europe’s Galileo consortium, said in April. “China, Russia and potentially India will develop their own navigation system with different technical solutions. A navigation system is a critical and significant component of any global space policy. … Navigation will be more and more critical in terms of commercial and institutional applications.”

      If all these upgrades and new systems come to fruition, around 100 navigation satellites could be orbiting the Earth within the next decade. “For the most part, everyone is doing this for their own reasons,” says Max Engel, broadband and satellite industry analyst for Frost and Sullivan’s Information and Communication Technologies sector. “Like the launch and satellite manufacturing industries, everyone agrees there is too much capacity, but at the same time, nobody is willing to ditch their national program. In some metaphorical sense, we could have an oversupply of navigation, but that doesn’t matter, because that’s not why everyone is doing this.”

      The U.S. Air Force also continues to include improvements intended specifically for civilian users in GPS upgrade plans. The GPS 2R program includes enhancements to provide increased signal power to receivers on the ground and a second civil signal that will provide users with an open access signal on a different frequency, and in April, the Air Force issued a contract to Lockheed Martin Space Systems to develop and integrate a demonstration payload to temporarily transmit a third civil signal on a modernized GPS Block 2R satellite. The Air Force also plans to award a multi-billion dollar GPS 3 development contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. or Boeing Co. before the end of the year.

      “Clearly, today, there is a robust system with GPS, but other systems would provide redundancy,” says Kanwar Chadha, founder and vice president of marketing for San Jose, Calif.-based Sirf Technology, which supplies GPS chipsets to manufacturers of consumer units. “There will be an improvement in the availability of signals if you go from 30 to 60 satellites, and it will be better in terms of technology and political concerns.”

      The United States government is working with Europe and Russia to establish cooperation among satellite navigation systems, and the European Space Agency has released the technical details of the Galileo signal, allowing receiver manufacturers and research institutions to use a real signal for research and development.

      “There are some advantages if you have dual GPS-Glonass or GPS-Galileo receivers able to draw on twice or three times the number of satellites,” Engel says. “They have the potential to be more accurate and to work better. It would be pretty impossible not to find enough satellites to tell where you are, and interference of various sorts becomes much less of an issue. It also greatly increases your confidence in the systems. I’m happy to use the system my archenemy has up if I know that if they take it down, I have three other systems to rely on.”

      While satellite navigation user will benefit from the improved redundancy of satellite navigation signals, more accurate signals probably will not make a difference to the average user, says Ted Gartner, a spokesman for Garmin International Inc., a maker of navigation, communication and information devices and applications based in Olathe, Kansas. “No more than 10 feet is all that is needed for most users,” he says. “But what we are finding now is that we have an opportunity to give people more than just point A to point B and now provide real-time traffic updates, fuel prices, route you to the cheapest gas station, weather forecasts, storm warnings, movie times and other services. There are a lot of mobile offerings, such as navigation over mobile phones, identifying nearby hotels. We are starting to link the world together geolocation-wise. The sky is the limit for all the different applications.”

      But the number of satellites in orbit can only improve the market for consumer satellite navigation so much, says Engel. The real benefit from more signals, stronger signals and more accuracy will not be realized until equipment makers and satellite navigation users come up with more creative ways to incorporate satellite navigation into everyday use, Engel says. “It’s creativity,” he says. “Network timing [which is needed for systems such as cell phone and ATM networks] is a wonderful example. Who would have thought that would be a major use of GPS? It spun out some ideas for other people over the years.

      Who needs intelligent highways if you really trust your satellite navigation system? Assuming the software works, and you really trust the equipment when it says the road is there, you end up with something not unlike the use of GPS tracking for launch vehicles.”

      Sirf works with its customers to try and define the hot satellite navigation markets, Chadha says. Today, the movement is from in-dash car systems to mobile, he says. The problem with the mobile market is that the chips must work with satellite constellations that were not developed with a variety of indoor or even individual uses in mind, says Chadha. GPS remains primarily a system for military use, while Galileo is being designed mainly for large professional users.

      “From the consumer standpoint, the problem is 100 percent availability everywhere,” Chadha says. “These systems are designed to provide the signal outdoors, while consumers want to take the signal indoors through the handheld environment.

      You have to almost work against the systems since they really are not designed to work indoors,” he says. “The new systems are increasing their signal strength to work indoors, and some are looking at combining their signals with other technology such as Wi-Fi or [microelectromechanical systems] to make them work better indoors.”

      RNCOS, an industry research firm located in Delhi, India, believes the incorporation of GPS services will be a major driver of revenue gains in the mobile industry. The popularity of GPS technology has been heightened by new generations of chips that are small enough that they can slip in the mobile handsets and “Most phone manufacturers will introduce a couple of devices enabled for navigating with a GPS satellite location chip inside,” RNCOS says. Europe is the key market for these systems, and the United States market should improve throughout the next two years. “Globally, the GPS market is expected to exceed $30 billion by 2008 as the market is being flooded by a number of affordable GPS components and receivers,” according to “World Global Positioning Systems Market Forecast (2006-2008),” which was released by RNCOS in January. “The two segments under this technology namely people tracking and handset market will have maximum growth rate, about nine percent by the year 2008.”

      To go beyond these revenue forecasts, the chips needs to be refined even further, Chadha says. “For mainstream consumer applications, the problem is how to put a GPS chip in a cell phone and not drain the battery, not have interference and have it be small enough so you are not increasing the size of the phone,” he says. “This is solvable through innovations on the receiver side. There are some evolutionary steps that can be taken and some revolutionary steps that will be needed. Going from today’s power consumption model — where systems work for hours — and making them work for days will be evolutionary, but to take them to where they work for months will be revolutionary. The ability to support multiple systems without a big increase in size and cost will be revolutionary. You don’t want to solve one problem by creating three others.”

      Once the technological limitations are overcome, the creativity of the equipment makers and the users can be unleashed to come up with even more ways to incorporate satellite navigation-enabled or -enhanced services into everyday life.

      “Once you get past the point of deploying the constellations and developing the chips, the creativity of the person applying the technology is vastly the most important thing,” says Engel. “The flowering of ideas takes place when the hardware is simple enough, cheap enough and available enough. That’s when you buy a satellite navigation receiver and plug into a computer and figure out how to use it. Once this is really embedded in everything, you can get uses such as asking your laptop where your car keys are. The laptop can tell you because it knows exactly where your keys are because of GPS and a map of the house. It’s the whole idea of fusion. That is one of the things that could happen when you integrate the ability to know where anything is with other technology, but who knows what else you can do with that.”

      Gartner believes, like any other technology, it is only a matter of time until GPS chips begin to drop in price and reach a point where widespread applications become more cost effective. The companies then can work with their customers and other users to foster ideas. “It becomes less and less about chip technology and more and more about creativity,” he says. “How can we accelerate the utility of this chipset to make it more relevant in people’s everyday lives? The sky isn’t even the limit.”

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