China's BeiDou global satellite navigation system is fully operational
More than 30 years of planning and development have borne fruit six months ahead of schedule, as China's complete BeiDou-3 global satellite positioning system was formally commissioned this month.
The 55th and final BeiDou satellite was launched on June 23rd, and has now completed testing and gone into full service. BeiDou is one of four global sat-nav positioning networks, alongside America's GPS, Russia's GLONASS and Europe's Galileo system.
Originally conceived in the 1980s, the network represents a colossal business opportunity for China, which is projecting revenues approaching US$60 billion in 2020. More than this, though, it's a huge military and strategic landmark for a country that has seen first-hand what it means to use a satellite positioning system owned by a rival nation.
Back in 1996, China was rattling its sabers by taking missile pot shots against targets close to Taiwan, when two of its GPS-guided missiles went off course and disappeared in an incident that later analysis determined could have been caused by American meddling with the positioning signal. Clearly, the nation's leaders decided, a Sinocentric alternative was a critical strategic necessity, and the first satellites were put in orbit in the year 2000.
BeiDou's public service delivers an average positioning accuracy of 2.34 meters (7.7 feet) according to a recent analysis by the International GNSS Monitoring and Assessment System. In certain areas within China, accuracy is already at the centimeter level, and with post-processing it could reach the millimeter level. Velocity measurement is better than 0.2 m/s, and timing accuracy is better than 20 nanoseconds.
There is also a military level of service, currently used only by China's People's Liberation Army and the Pakistan Armed forces, which offers 10-cm (4-in) accuracy and critical system status information.
BeiDou also offers a short message communication service through its satellites, which provides very limited emergency communications for those with the necessary equipment in areas with little other coverage, such as for ships out in the middle of the ocean. The BeiDou network has more than 99-percent coverage across the globe.
Apple and Samsung phones, among others, are already using BeiDou's signal to improve the quality of their positioning services, as are all the Chinese brands. Last year, more than 70 percent of phones sold in China were BeiDou-enabled.
The full commissioning of the complete BeiDou network is an enormous technical achievement for China that will pay off for decades to come.