India one step closer to launching its own ‘GPS’

When completed in March 2016, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System is expected to give the country great strategic value over its neighbours.

India's fourth navigational satellite, the PSLV-C27, being launched in Sriharikota, India on March 28, 2015. India is on it's way to becoming the fourth nation to launch its own satellite navigation system, with the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) due to be operational later in 2016. Arun Sankar K/AP Photo
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NEW DELHI // India is set to become the fourth country in the world to operate its own satellite navigation system, giving it a strategic advantage over its neighbours including Pakistan.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on January 20 launched its fifth satellite since 2013, which will form part of a constellation of electronic receivers in orbit around the earth.

All seven satellites will be in orbit by April and the system is expected to be fully operational later this year.

The United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS) is the most widely used satellite navigation system, and Russia and China operate their own versions.

The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) – developed at a cost of US$209 million (Dh767.6m) – will be of great strategic value to the country as it will be entirely under Indian control, said Suresh Kibe, the programme director for satellite navigation at ISRO between 2000 and 2010.

"The US's GPS is under the control of the US department of defence," Dr Kibe told The National. "These are our satellites. We can control whatever is happening to our satellites."

The concept of satellite navigation emerged in the 1970s, when the US launched several satellites to develop its GPS.

However, it might have remained a military application if not for the tragedy of Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

In 1983, the KAL jet wandered accidentally into Soviet air space, unable to track its position accurately enough. Soviet jets down the plane killing all 269 people on board.

Shaken by the incident, then president Ronald Reagan promised to throw open the GPS technology for civilian use, but it would be another decade before private companies could incorporate the technology into their products.

The idea for the IRNSS was born in the late 1990s, Dr Kibe said, but government approvals were granted only in 2006.

“The primary challenge was spectrum,” he said. “Other satellite navigation systems were launched in the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s, so by the time we began to plan for it, the range of frequencies that we could use was limited.”

“We had to work it out so that we wouldn’t overlap with the signals that other systems used,” he said.

While GPS maintains global coverage with the help of 31 satellites, Dr Kibe added, IRNSS will only cover the Indian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean.

As with GPS, India’s navigation system will have two levels of access – one for civilian usage and another for the government.

The civilian service, which can be licensed out to companies, will be only slightly more accurate than GPS. Scientists have promised accuracy levels of within 10 metres on the ground and within 20 metres on the ocean.

But the government access to IRNSS, to be used for military and defence purposes, can be far more accurate than GPS. This level of precision will prove to be a strategic advantage for India, said Ajay Lele, a scholar of strategic technologies at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, a New Delhi-based think tank.

“As far as strategic requirements go, to a certain extent you can depend on others,” Mr Lele said. “But when you understand that you’re staying next door to a nuclear neighbour, and that India has fought four-and-a-half wars with its neighbour, India needs to remain strategically prepared.”

During the last India-Pakistan war in 1999, a rumour circulated that the US was denying India access to the most precise level of its GPS, Mr Lele said. Although that rumour had never been substantiated, it illustrated the advantages of having such a system fully under Indian control.

At the same time, there was no reason for India to attempt to build a system that has global reach, as GPS does.

“India doesn’t have global ambitions like the US,” Mr Lele said. “Our warships aren’t going to cross the Pacific or anything like that. The US does have to travel these long distances to the Arabian Sea, the South China Sea, places like that. That sort of requirement isn’t there for India.”

Once IRNSS is operational, Indian companies will be able to license its navigation technologies, at a rate cheaper than that of GPS.

One Mumbai-based executive of a navigation device, who asked to remain anonymous, said that his company was among several that met ISRO in Bengaluru last October.

“They told us that we’d have some improvement in accuracy when compared to GPS’ coverage of India,” he said. “We’d have to modify our devices and our software a little to make use of IRNSS, which is something of a pain.”

“But it’s definitely exciting to think that our Indian-built devices will be accessing Indian-built satellites, launched by an Indian space agency,” he said. “That’s something to look forward to.”