China's own satellite navigation system has won a stamp of approval from an international maritime body, an important step toward its goal of global acceptance for its answer to the United States’ Global Positioning System.
The Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations body that sets standards for international shipping, formally included Beidou in the World-Wide Radionavigation System during its Nov. 17-21 meeting. This means that the Chinese system has become the third system, after GPS and Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System, recognized by the United Nations body for operations at sea.
The inclusion of Beidou “is a recognition that Beidou can provide positioning data of adequate accuracy for its coverage area,” said Kevin Pollpeter, who focuses on China’s space program and information warfare issues at the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California, San Diego.
China first tested the Beidou system in 2000 and has since invested billions in its development to compete with and lower the country’s dependence on GPS. It has mandated the use of the domestic system in government departments including public security, disaster relief and tourism. In January 2013, the country's transportation authority ordered all tour buses, long-distance buses and vehicles transporting “dangerous articles” in nine provinces to install the system. New heavy trucks manufactured in the nine provinces must install the system or they will not receive transportation permits, the vice minister of transport said. The country has also installed the navigation system in more than 50,000 Chinese fishing boats, including those plying the waters of the disputed South China Sea.
But Beidou is not yet a mature system and is hardly poised to rival GPS globally, analysts say. Currently, GPS holds 95 percent of China’s navigation market.
“I would not expect this announcement to result in an upsurge of demand for Beidou,” Mr. Pollpeter said, citing such factors as the decades-long proven reliability of GPS, its accuracy and cheaper receiver cost.
However, what the Beidou system does have is strong backing from the Chinese government. In 2012, the vice chairman of the country’s top military body, the Central Military Commission, urged the country’s researchers to improve the system’s capacity to prevent interference, calling the system a “milestone” for the country and military, the state news agency Xinhua reported. The following year, the country’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission drew up a national development plan for Beidou.
Not content with the system’s adoption within China, the government has also set the goal of providing global coverage with 35 geostationary and non-geostationary orbit satellites by 2020. To promote the system’s adoption by other Asian countries, China has been offering civilian use of the service free, the director of the Beidou Satellite System Application Center told Xinhua last year.
“China sees development of Beidou as critical to its military and economic security and has designated it as part of its national infrastructure,” Mr. Pollpeter said.
“The market for satellite navigation products and services in China is estimated to reach to 400 billion renminbi,” about $65 billion, by 2020 and China wants Beidou to capture 70 to 80 percent market share, Mr. Pollpeter said.
The Chinese Ministry of Transportation sent a delegation to the Maritime Safety Committee meeting, held in London, to introduce the Chinese system. Beidou is the Chinese name for the Big Dipper constellation, one of the brightest clusters of stars in the solar system, which long served as a crucial navigational tool for travelers.
What China has been able to do in recent years is overtake Europe’s efforts with its Galileo system, said Todd E. Humphreys, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering. Galileo has not yet been included in the World-Wide Radionavigation System.
“It’s interesting that BDS” — Beidou — “began in earnest after Galileo, but has by now outpaced Galileo in establishing itself as a global system,” Mr. Humphreys said. “The Europeans are hampered by too many committees.”