When I first visited Beijing a few years ago, I came there from a stop in India. This was just before the Olympics in 2008, but there were signs then of big-scale preparations in terms of highway infrastructure and building. As the two most populous countries in the world, India (1.13 billion people) and China (1.3 billion people) both are making huge strides forward. China does appear for the moment, however, to be more focused on the commercialization of GNSS.
True, both countries are working towards their own GNSS constellations using their own launchers — China with Beidou/COMPASS and India with IRNSS — but China does appear to be ahead in this particular “space race.” While India plots a path towards IRNSS and GAGAN is up and running, Beidou Geostationary satellites are already in orbit, and western users have already reported tracking signals. With seven satellites already on orbit, Beidou/COMPASS is well on its way towards becoming first a regional and then a global satellite navigation system.
A whole heap of Chinese companies are working on GNSS in China — those who have developed low-end single-frequency, mass-market receivers and applications, and many who have imported receivers from the West and built applications around them, with lots of software applications, ancillary items such as antennas, handheld enclosures, and more. With this level of capability, it’s not surprising that indigenous multiple-frequency Beidou/GPS/GLONASS professional receivers may already be available.
I talked recently with some old friends in Beijing to catch up on Chinese GNSS and to learn more about the activities of their company — known as BDStar. Originally established in 2000, significant growth led in 2007 to an Initial Public Offering — this IPO in itself is a sign of significant economic change and growth in China. From an initial start-up staff of a few key individuals in 2000, this company has now grown to employ more than 650 people at several locations around China, working through the BDStar parent and in five subsidiary companies.
BDStar started off by importing Western survey-quality receivers and building them into survey-related applications, including high-precision vehicle tracking, geographic information systems, control, and telemetry. While port automation projects are not new, BDStar also undertook several of these as far back as 2003. It’s easy to see how Chinese companies are becoming world class when we look at the extensive skills and technical capabilities needed for these large-scale, complex projects.
BDStar took on a key project which propelled its growth when it successfully provided its first container inventory systems for a Chinese port. These containers are the large shipping boxes we see in the holds and on the decks of huge cargo ships, and sometimes flying by us on the backs of 18 wheelers. It takes enormous cranes and transporters to move them around when they leave or arrive at ports around the world. Huge dockside cranes unload containers from ships, then rubber-wheeled gantries move them from the dock to massive storage areas. These gantries acquire data when they hook up — such as where the container is coming from, where it’s going to, and when it will get its next ride — then location information is added to the container data file. When the gantry deposits the container at its temporary storage location, an RTK measurement tags the exact position at which it is stored within the vast maze of container stacks so workers can find it again later and move it onwards to its destination.
The system extends to the unloading quayside cranes, various forms of fork-lift trucks, and trailers used to transport containers about the yard. This all adds up to hundreds of radio links and radio management issues, difficult RTK receiver installations on vibrating, all-weather moving platforms — all of which need visibility of the sky and access to RTK correction signals — plus huge amounts of data acquisition and handling and display systems: a highly complex system solution that BDStar has now replicated at several ports.
Locating, tracking, and moving containers to and from their ships, in some of the largest shipping yards in the world, is no small problem. The BDStar system appears to have automated and simplified container movement for ports that include Ninbo Port Second Container Terminal, Shanghai Yangshan Container Terminals, Shenzhen Chiwan Container Terminals, Tianjin Container Terminals, and other container terminals in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. BDStar claims that the production efficiency of ports equipped with its system is improved by between 5 and 10 percent. Sure are a lot of containers at these “super-ports” in China and around the world, so improving the tracking and transit of containers through these ports can significantly improve profitability for the shipping companies.
Then, in a completely different direction, BDStar designed and implemented the ground control and monitoring command center for the early Beidou satellites. The system provides positioning, time-transfer, and short-message information for onwards distribution to Beidou users. The Beidou system not only provides positioning and timing data, but also has a “short-message” capability. BDStar has adapted this ground system so that China’s long-distance fishing fleet can be tracked and supported from mainland China. China has the largest marine fishing fleet in the world — about 280,000 vessels and a fishing industry with nearly 10 million people with the most dangerous jobs in China. It is estimated that 8,774 fishermen died and 22,345 vessels were lost while fishing between 1993 and 2004.
Vessel position data is transmitted over the Beidou short-message system, frequently from ships which are thousands of miles away from port. The BDStar system gathers this information and redistributes it to vessel operator companies on shore. The system also cross-connects the Beidou short message system with land-based cell-phone systems. Customers can respond over the Beidou short-message system; for instance, in the event that a ship is in distress, other ships in the vicinity can be routed to assist. This is currently the primary application for Beidou civilian usage, and through it BDStar has become the number one Beidou operator and terminal provider in China.
With an estimated 20m positioning accuracy, Beidou is well on its way to being a regional GNSS in 2012. By 2020 the system is planned to be global. Beidou capable receivers are clearly already being sold within China — mostly in applications using the short-message function. Unicore, a BDStar subsidiary, advertises Beidou/GPS/GLONASS receivers and chipsets developed in China.
A 2009 report estimated the GNSS market in China to be worth close to $9 billion U.S., mostly in consumer applications, and growing at around 50 percent annually! BDStar therefore has lots of local competition, and increasing competition from western GNSS suppliers aligned with other local GNSS companies. But as in most markets it’s likely that healthy, successful companies like BDStar will continue to thrive and prosper. Growth like this is good for the GNSS industry, as opportunities seem to abound for everyone in such an expanding Chinese marketplace.