How Russia Could Make Your Navigation System a Whole Lot Better
Back in the 1970s, when the U.S. military began work on creating the Global Positioning System, it would have probably been inconceivable that one day the technology would find its way into people’s cars and homes. Here's something even more unbelievable: Russia’s equivalent could be used to improve the accuracy of civilian systems. Now, with a little help from Qualcomm, U.S. smartphone owners may find themselves the beneficiaries of the Cold War. First, a history lesson: Russia began to build its Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) back in 1978 – it became fully operational in 1995, but fell into disrepair with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under Vladimir Putin the program became a top priority, and when its 22nd satellite was launched in 2010 it was able to provide 100 percent coverage to Russia. It still needs two more satellites to provide 100 percent global coverage, but those are on the way. In the not too distant future smartphones, tablets and other navigation systems may be able to connect to both networks to better determine location. In 2012, Qualcomm planss to begin selling chips that will be able to access GLONASS. Russia provides access for free and the Qualcomm technology is relatively simple to incorporate in new devices – probably into higher-end navigation systems before smartphones and tablets. But given a few years who knows what could happen? Two Satellite Arrays Are Better Than One There are advantages to using both systems. Most obviously, there are 22 extra satellites. The navigation systems that we use in our cars and phones work by calculating their proximity to different satellites in the array. In order for this to work, the GPS receiver has to be able to “see” the satellites. Tall buildings and other obstacles can interfere with this process and limit the accuracy of the calculations. So extra satellites mean that users in cities with a lot of high-rise buildings will be more likely to receive accurate information, and navigation systems in places like New York may not need cell phone towers to boost accuracy. The second advantage is less obvious but no less significant: GLONASS provides a backup to the aging GPS satellite array. In the event that one or more satellites in the array failed, dual-access navigation systems would still be reliable.