By Wes Siler
Ever contemplated going to war with America, but been thwarted when the Great Satan switched off your access to its navigation satellites? That’s potentially a real problem for China and Russia, but the real victor in this navigational arms race might be you; it’s improving the quality of location data on your phone and in your car.
How Satellite Navigation Works
The general idea is that there’s a “constellation” of 24 to 31 GPS satellites orbiting the earth. Each transmits a unique signal, which a receiver uses to calculate the range between it and that satellite. Comparing those ranges to the known positions of those satellites allows your navigator to determine its position to within a few meters. To achieve that in three dimensions, your GPS receiver must have a line-of-sight to at least four satellites. There’s a lot more complicated stuff about atomic clocks and time, but this is the general idea.
And GPS is used in far more applications than just your car’s route guidance or in determining the distance to Tindr matches on your iPhone. Financial institutions use its billionth-of-a-second time keeping accuracy to meter transactions, farm equipment uses it grow crops and, if you’re trying to calculate guidance for a ballistic missile, it’s important to be able to know the split-second location of that missile.
I’m sure you can see the two issues this raises. If you’re a civilian, you’ve likely experienced an inability to or a delay in your device achieving a “lock” on all four necessary satellites. If you’re a hostile government, it’d be hard to go to war against a country that controls your ability to navigate and provide guidance to your munitions; GPS is operated by the US Department of Defense.
The Space Race
The US Air Force first put GPS into place way back in 1973 and kept it military-only until 1989. It wasn’t until 2000 that the system became completely available for civilian use. As one of the most important pieces of the technological infrastructure governing our daily lives, it’s in a near constant state of upgrade. Currently, we’re working towards replacing the generation IIF satellites with gen IIIA items that will improve accuracy to within a single meter.
The Lockheed Martin contract for eight IIIA GPS satellites is costing taxpayers £2.9 billion. This relatively large cost, as well as the ability to launch shit into space, is what has, to-date, given the US a monopoly on satellite navigation.
The Soviet Union quickly saw it was at a massive disadvantage and began developing its own GPS clone in 1976. Its GLObal NAvigation Satellite System (GLONASS) constellation of 24 satellites was completed in 1995, but was almost immediately allowed to decay as Russia’s ability to conduct giant programs in space diminished following the fall of communism. Restoring the network was one of Putin’s first and most pressing priorities as President and it resumed global coverage in 2011. To give you an idea of its importance to the Russkies, it’s the most expensive program in its space agency, accounting for a full third of its total budget. You can’t conduct a shadow war in the Ukraine without a good understanding of where the border lies.
And Russia isn’t the only country to realise its military autonomy may be dependent on access to its own network of navigation satellites.
China brought its own domestic satellite navigation system, BeiDou, online in 2011 and has ambitions to take it global as well, with a total of 35 satellites planned.
During the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999, the Indian military sought access to GPS from the American government. But it was denied. This action spurred India to develop its own, regional, satellite navigation system, again for purposes of military autonomy. The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) will create its own GPS equivalent working across its own country and extending up to 1,500km from its borders.
Even the European Union wants in on the act. Galileo is supposed to have 30 satellites in place by 2020 and is again intended to give member country autonomy from US or Russian controlled systems.
The two fully operational global satellite navigation systems in operation right now remain GPS and GLONASS.
GLONASS constellation (left) and GPS (right). Consumers essentially get access to both, at the same time.
How Rival Systems Benefit You
GPS and GLONASS are essentially analogous, at least from a layperson, consumer perspective. Both use a constellation of satellites which transmit their positions and which track time to tiny intervals.
GPS was first and the US was extremely successful at commercializing it. GPS receivers have been ubiquitous in consumer goods for over a decade now. Russia desires the same and now dictates that all satellite navigation-capable electronics sold there be GLONASS compatible. Most manufacturers of consumer electronics now find it easier to simply give all their products both compatibilities; the iPhone has worked with GLONASS since the 4S and most other smartphone manufacturers began including it around the same time, too.
GLONASS compatibility is also becoming common on handheld navigators and even in smart watches.
The big benefit to you and I is that, with GLONASS, the number of satellites we can use to pinpoint our locations has essentially doubled. This makes acquiring the minimum number to achieve a location quicker, easier and possible in more difficult locations and weathers; a GPS satellite may be blocked by a mountain, but a GLONASS satellite may not be, and vice versa.
It also means satellite navigation will remain possible should one of these systems go down or access to it be denied by one of the governments. The US states that it never denies GPS data, but does have the ability to jam or confuse it. I bet there’s a lot of people fighting in Syria and Yemen right now who are figuring out which way to point their guns by using GLONASS.
The real benefit, however, is that everyone with the ability to use both systems now has access to 48 satellites and vastly superior data as a result. Using both, you increase satellite signal observations from satellites with better spacial distribution while achieving lower dilution of precision caused by the relative angle of your receiver. Faster location calculations are said to be possible as well; Garmin claims a 20% improvement in acquisition times on its devices when they’re using both GPS and GLONASS.
To take advantage of these benefits, many gadgets require you to enable GLONASS acquisition. Search your navigation settings for something along the lines of “GPS+GLONASS” and enable it for the most accurate, fastest and least failure-prone location results.
So the next time there’s nuclear missiles flying through the air and you’re using your phone to find the nearest fallout shelter, remember that it’s this decades-long not-a-conflict between the US and Russia that’s helping you get to safety 20% faster and, in areas with prominent obstructions to your view of the sky, that much more reliably as well.
This article originally appeared on Indefinitely Wild, Gizmodo's blog on adventure travel and the gear that gets us there