China's eyes in the sky 'go public'
China opened its home-grown satellite navigation system to civilian use yesterday, presenting the United States with a challenge to its global dominance in the field.
Though still incomplete, the Beidou system had already proven its worth in boosting China's military, technological and economic muscle, the central government said.
China Satellite Navigation Management Office director Ran Chengqi released Beidou's interface communication document (icd) at a press conference in Beijing yesterday. Access to the codebook had long been limited to the People's Liberation Army and some companies with government backgrounds, but now even Hongkongers will be able to use Beidou's service.
Ran said that with just 10 satellites in operation, only China and neighbouring countries could use the service at present. But the entire Asia-Pacific region will receive Beidou's signal with the launch of six more satellites by the end of next year.
'In 2020, we will go global,' he said, with a 37-satellite constellation to rival America's GPS, Russia's GLONASS and the European Union's planned Galileo system.
Ran said an independent satellite navigation system was important to China's national security. Without it, the nation could not call itself a big and powerful country. Opening the system to the civilian sector would also benefit the economy, he said.
A sales manager for Garmin, a leading manufacturer of navigation devices, said in Beijing yesterday it welcomed the publication of the codebook because without it, it would be impossible to make a Beidou-compatible product. 'The Chinese government has restricted access to the icd to give Chinese companies a lead,' he said. 'They have already come up with some products that can use the signals of GPS, GLO-NASS and Beidou simultaneously.'
A navigation device starts up faster, runs more reliably and accurately if it can use the signals of several navigation systems because it sees more satellites in the sky. It is particularly useful in non-open environments such as forests, mountains and built-up cities like Hong Kong.
Ning Shangguo , a senior engineer at Beijing-based BDStar Navigation, said it already had a full range of Beidou-compatible products, from military command systems to civilian handhelds, and was ready for international competition.
'The arrival of foreign companies will make us stronger,' he said. 'I think Chinese companies will maintain a lead because we have the support of the government.'
The government admits that Beidou is the least accurate of the three functioning satellite navigation systems today - accurate to 25 metres for civilian users at first and eventually 10 metres when more satellites are launched - but is does offer one unique service that can save lives - a short messaging service. 'A Beidou user not only knows his position but can beam words to other people,' Ran said. 'It is particularly useful during an emergency.'
BDStar president Zhou Ruxin said in an article on the company's website that the SMS service had been sold to almost 30,000 Chinese fishing boats. The firm used the service to tell captains of a wide range of dangers, from typhoons to trespassing into other nations' waters.
The year in which Beidou was formed, to reduce China's dependency on the United States-controlled GPS network