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India takes on China with its own navigational satellites

But the country's uneven technical abilities put it behind in the space race

An Indian PSLV-C32 rocket successfully lifts off last year carrying a satellite. (Courtesy of India's Space Applications Center)

NEW DELHI -- India, following in China's footsteps, is developing its own navigational satellite system, aiming to put it into commercial use by the second half of 2018, according to Tapan Misra, director of the country's Space Applications Center.

India's autonomous navigation satellite system, called NavIC, covers only India and its periphery, but is nevertheless drawing attention as an alternative to the U.S. Global Positioning System. NavIC will make positioning information accessible through mobile phones in 2019, Misra told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview.

The SAC is part of the Indian Space Research Organization, which leads the country's space development, and is tasked with forming radars and other payloads for satellites. It is also creating the positioning chips that receive the positioning data from NavIC.

Chasing China

On Nov. 5, China successfully launched two satellites for its Beidou-3 Navigation Satellite System, which boasts an accuracy of 2.5 meters, two to three times better than its previous system.

China began commercial operation of Beidou in 2011. If India gets NavIC up and running next year as planned, that would put it about seven years behind its northern neighbor.

Misra said NavIC has a maximum positioning error of 2.5 meters, the same as the Chinese system. While some experts note that the system is only accurate to 10 to 20 meters, Misra said this can be reduced to 2.5 meters using two chips that receive signals in different frequency bands, as the Chinese system does.

The Michibiki quasi-zenith satellite system Japan plans to operate offers an accuracy of 6cm. NavIC is much less accurate, but still represents a drastic improvement from the GPS that some Indian companies, like mapping services, currently rely on.

An artist's rendering of a satellite in the NavIC autonomous navigation satellite system (Courtesy of India's Space Applications Center)

India began to develop autonomous positioning satellites partly in response to the Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999. The U.S. operator of GPS refused to provide India with positioning data during that skirmish, underscoring India's need to develop its own system.

The Indian government approved a satellite development program in 2006 and launched the first one in 2013. Seven Indian satellites are now in geostationary and other orbits. After a failed deployment in August, an eighth is expected to be launched early next year.

Relying on Taiwan

"We can take pride in the fact that we have developed various systems to showcase to the world. We have been able to develop the NavIC Navigation System through GPS," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an Aug. 15 speech marking India's independence.

The speech, intended to stir Indian national pride, included many phrases that were directed at China. Indian and Chinese troops at the time were facing off at the border. The reference to space development was taken by many India-watchers as a signal of the government's determination to challenge China in the space industry.

Tapan Misra

But the conversation with SAC's Misra highlights the limits of Indian capabilities. Misra said India had "already funded some Taiwanese companies to manufacture and test" the receiver chips. While he did not disclose the names of the companies, he revealed, in effect, that India cannot carry out a project designed to enhance its prestige on its own.

Misra said the chips cannot find their way into smartphones as each costs 100,000 rupees ($1,528) to produce. Prices need to fall to $1 for that to happen, he explained.

For the receiver chips, India likely had no choice but to rely on the Taiwanese company.

The Modi government's "Make in India" campaign to encourage local manufacturing has attracted some telecommunications equipment and component makers to the country. The Taiwanese company is expected to begin producing receiver chips in India for the positioning satellite system in the future.

But India has yet to develop the basic skills it needs for high-tech manufacturing, although it does well in some cutting-edge technologies, such as satellites. Its uneven capabilities mean it is likely to continue to trail China and other countries for some time to come.

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