What is GLONASS and How Is It Different From GPS?

April 10, 2016

This article guides you through the main features of the GLONASS satellite navigation system: How GLONASS works and what differentiates it from GPS.

What Is GPS? Here’s How It Works, And A Few Familiar Applications:

GPS stands for the Global Positioning System, a network of 31 satellites put into orbit by the US military. GPS is the world’s foremost satellite navigation system. GPS was made available for public use in the 1980s and has since become utilised by a variety of modern technologies and products and is indispensible for many processes we take for granted today.

The network of GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day in a very precise orbit and use trilateration to pinpoint a signal carried by a device. GPS technology is able to pinpoint your devices’ location to between 3.5 and 7.5 meters of accuracy, and display that location on your digital map. GPS is used in:

  • Turn-by-turn navigation systems – e.g. “Satnav”; Google Maps Directions

  • Hiking GPS units – used to send your exact location to rescue services

  • GPS trackers – used to deter theft of cars and bikes

  • Mapping and surveying

  • Aviation

What Is GLONASS And How Is It Different From GPS?Glonass

GLONASS is an acronym standing for Globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya sistema, or Global Navigational Satellite System. GLONASS is a satellite navigation system developed and used by the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces. It provides the only current alternative to the GPS navigation satellites with worldwide coverage and similar accuracy. How is it different?

  • The GPS is a network of 31 satellites, whereas GLONASS comprises 24.

  • GLONASS satellites circle at a slightly lower, and faster, orbit: about 19 000 kilometres, or 11,900 miles.

  • GLONASS may offer better coverage across Russia and the arctic region, and may offer increased accuracy over GPS.

  • Devices offering navigation systems with GLONASS as well as GPS probably have better network coverage because of the combined total of 55 satellites able to triangulate your location at any given time and place.

  • GLONASS is running pretty far behind GPS in terms of commercial market saturation. Increasing numbers of smartphones and navigation devices are capable of using GLONASS in addition to GPS, but Russian-made GLONASS devices have not done well in international markets to date.

When And Where Was GLONASS Developed?

Development of GLONASS began in 1976 but wasn’t operational until 1995, and didn’t even achieve full coverage of Russian territories until 2010. The Russian government has committed more than $10bn to the program since 2010, and it was only a year later – 2011 – that the network achieved global coverage. With the added funding, the Russian government hope to improve location accuracy to within 0.6 meters by 2020.

What Are The Benefits Of GLONASS?

For most of you, the benefits of GLONASS aren’t in what it can do compared it to GPS, but what it has to offer in combination with GPS. GLONASS is slightly less precise than GPS (accurate to up to 2m), but together with the GPS satellites, the networks are able to pinpoint your device’s location more effectively, and cover each other’s blind spots.

In Russia and across the Arctic it is possible that GLONASS alone might give you better coverage than GPS alone, but the reality is that most popular smartphones and high-end car navigation devices are already utilising both systems.

The first smartphone to make use of GLONASS in addition to GPS was the iPhone 4s, released in late 2011.

Apple, Asus, HTC, Huawei, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony (Ericsson) have all released several recent models with GLONASS capabilities.

Commercial Applications Of GLONASS

The first commercial Russian-made GLONASS navigation device for cars, the GLOSPACE SGK-70, was released in 2007. However, it was significantly bigger and clumsier than similar devices already on the market, and failed to impress internationally or gain much traction in terms of continuing to develop and improve the product with hopes of competing.

Limitations Of GLONASS

In April 2014 and more recently in February 2016, GLONASS suffered several technical failures and a human manoeuvring error, and the whole network became unavailable for about 12 hours at one point. But these problems are rare, and GLONASS requires only 18 of its 24 satellites to be fully functional for the network constellation to keep operating.

The program is currently working on installing new spare satellites in orbit to fill in gaps during scheduled maintenance and technical difficulty. Several new and improved satellites are also in the research and development phase, with plans to launch them over the next few years.

New Satellite Systems Currently Being Developed

The skies are starting to seem mighty crowded (that’s a firefly reference). Here are the main satellite systems, still in the development phase, which you should know about:

  • The European Union is currently developing the Galileo constellation, which the Union hopes will provide a highly precise global positioning service under purely civilian control. Galileo will consist of 30 satellites – 27 operational and 3 spares in orbit.

  • China is working on its own network of 35 satellites, known as the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (or Běidǒu wèixīng dǎoháng xìtǒng). A smaller test version of the system has been in orbit since 2000 and started offering services to Asian markets in 2012. Initially, China planned to cooperate with the UN’s Galileo project, but in 2008 it announced dissatisfaction with the arrangement and instead began to seriously implement their competing system. Restricted military applications of the system are much more accurate than either GPS or GLONASS at close to 0.2 meters. Estimated completion for the BeiDou full-scale global service is 2020.

  • The Indian Space Research Organisation is developing the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System or IRNSS. The autonomous satellite system will offer public use and restricted applications for departments with authorized access. As is typical of Indian space ventures, the ISRO aim to complete this project with less materials than their bigger counterparts: the IRNSS will comprise only seven satellites, six of which are already placed in orbit. The constellation is expected to be completed and functional by June 2016.

Metadata: Concise article covering main features of the GLONASS satellite navigation system: What GLONASS is, how GLONASS works, and how it is different from GPS.

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