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Technology

China and Japan take rivalry into orbit with GPS offensives

Both sides want the edge in key tech for defense and autonomous driving

Japan's Michibiki 4 (Photo courtesy of the Cabinet Office)

TOKYO -- Japan and China are rivals in many ways, but their latest competition is on a decidedly higher level: outer space. Both countries are determined to upgrade the precision of their respective equivalents of the Global Positioning System, hoping to reap benefits in defense and business alike.

Though they share the same goal, the countries are taking different approaches. Japan aims to do it efficiently in cooperation with the U.S., whereas China intends to go it alone.

The U.S.-owned GPS has become an essential tool for modern life. Developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, it is now used globally for smartphone mapping apps and automotive navigation systems. Europe also has its own global satellite navigation system called Galileo.

An upgrade to China's BeiDou navigation satellite system aims to make it competitive with rivals such as GPS, an American system, and Europe's Galileo.

Highly accurate satellite navigation is essential if the self-driving cars of tomorrow are to avoid traffic jams and accidents. This burgeoning demand is a big reason the Asian giants are looking to enhance the competitiveness of their own systems.

Growing fleet

China plans to launch an upgraded version of its navigation satellite system, the BeiDou-3, which will be two to three times more accurate than the current Beidou-2. Capable of pinpointing a location within 2.5 meters, Beijing hopes to make it as sophisticated as the GPS or Galileo.

With the first launch scheduled in November, China aims to have four of the BeiDou-3 satellites in orbit by year-end. The plan is to have 35 satellites running by 2020, at which point the system will be able to provide global coverage. China is eyeing a 20% share of the global navigation satellite market.

Already, fishing boats in the East and South China seas are equipped with BeiDou navigation systems.

The additional satellites will enable coverage of an area connecting China and Europe, the stage for President Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road Initiative.

China has also developed a computer chip for use in navigation systems for cars and bike-share services. The chip is compatible with the BeiDou-3 satellite and will soon start shipping in large volumes. Ofo, operator of a bike-share service in China, has said it intends to use the chip.

BeiDou was first developed in 1994 by the Chinese military as an air-defense system. A prototype began operating in 2000, with commercial use beginning in late 2011. There are currently 23 BeiDou-2 satellites in operation, covering China and the western Pacific Ocean.

Accurate to 6cm

Japan, meanwhile, is busy launching satellites of its own. On Tuesday, the country's space agency launched an H-IIA rocket carrying the Michibiki No. 4 quasi-zenith satellite. The successful launch added a fourth GPS satellite to Japan's orbiting fleet.

Michibiki satellites are designed to supplement information from the U.S. GPS. When the Michibiki system starts commercial operation, the accuracy of GPS information will improve to a roughly 6cm margin of error, from several meters at present.

"If agricultural machinery goes off track so much as 5cm, crops may be crushed," said Shuzo Takada, the director general of the National Space Policy Secretariat at Japan's Cabinet Office. "Now we can operate such machines automatically." 

At least one of these satellites will be almost directly above Japan at all times, making it easier to receive Michibiki signals between tall buildings or in the mountains.

Full commercial service is scheduled to begin in fiscal 2018 -- the year starting next April. Japan intends to increase the number of Michibiki satellites in orbit to seven by fiscal 2023.

Aside from autonomous driving, the Michibiki system will support remote-controlled machinery for farming and construction, along with disaster relief efforts.

When it comes to accuracy, Michibiki holds the edge over BeiDou. On the other hand, the sheer number of BeiDou satellites will give China a capacity advantage -- making the country a formidable challenger when it comes to providing navigation services to the rest of Asia.

Nikkei staff writer Masayuki Yuda contributed to this article.

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