A model of China's BeiDou positioning system. Photo: Xinhua
A model of China's BeiDou positioning system. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing may launch more than a dozen satellites to complete its ambitious BeiDou network by the end of next year, when its indigenous navigation system is poised to take on the market stranglehold currently enjoyed by the Global Positioning System (GPS), developed and operated by the United States Space Command, as well as Europe’s Galileo system.

Japanese financial publication Nihon Keizai Shimbun has revealed that the launch of the fourth BeiDou satellite is scheduled for November, and a slew of more launches in 2018 will bring the total number of satellites to 18, extending coverage not only in Chinese territory but also to a dozen nations along the Belt and Road routes in South and Southeast Asia.

With more satellites entering space, positioning accuracy is expected to be greatly beefed up from 10 meters at present to 2.5 meters, putting BeiDou in the same league with GPS.

Application-wise, Chinese bicycle-sharing company Ofo will switch to BeiDou for the positioning of its nationwide fleet of tens of millions of bikes, and state-owned aerospace manufacturer Comac has already commenced BeiDou trials on board its regional jets, Global Times reports.

Tests are under way to prepare BeiDou for future commercialization in the civil-aviation industry. Photo: Xinhua

The operator of the BeiDou network, the China National Space Administration, has laid bare a lofty goal of wresting no less than 20% of the global market from GPS and Galileo by 2020, on the strength of the 35 satellites in orbit that will form a seamless global outreach with literally no stone left uncovered.

But BeiDou has an inconvenient truth, an Achilles’ heel, overseas experts say.

Japanese and Taiwanese military commentators have pointed out that BeiDou’s two-way transmission system, in which its satellites broadcast signals to Earth and end-user devices transmit signals back, will be a big drag on BeiDou’s competitiveness.

The two-way process may take time to complete a task, compromising its positioning accuracy in military applications when tracking hypervelocity objects such as an intercontinental ballistic missile.

By comparison, GPS devices, or more precisely GPS receivers, don’t actually “contact” satellites to determine a location but instead listen for the signals that are being broadcast from GPS satellites all the time.

During wartime, signal-emitting BeiDou terminal devices are also at risk of revealing their locations to the enemy, as other satellites could also pick up and decode these signals.

Current GPS chips can be tiny.

A further downside is that since BeiDou devices need to receive and transmit signals simultaneously, they may be bulky in size compared  with miniaturized GPS receivers, which are now incorporated in numerous mobile devices and even in smart watches.

Bandwidth is another bottleneck, as two-way transmission takes up precious lanes of data traffic, limiting system capacity.

The system is also susceptible to cyberattacks, as large chunks of data and requests could clog or even collapse the service. In theory, GPS has no such data ceiling as it works just like one-way radio broadcasting.

Analysts say the fledging BeiDou’s global push to rival GPS could go astray with all of the system’s innate flaws originating from the way it works, and the only way to address these issues is to invent a new system from scratch, which in turn is unlikely given the huge amount of money already splurged on BeiDou.

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