Better Location Tracking — From Russia, With Love

A GLONASS satellite, courtesy of NASA.

The next generation of navigation chips inside mobile phones could take advantage of Russian satellites orbiting the globe, in addition to the more familiar GPS systems. Qualcomm, Broadcom and ST-Ericsson are building GPS chips with support for Russia’s Glonass satellite system. According to chip analysts at The Linley Group:

A new feature in GPS chips is Glonass support. Glonass is the Russian equivalent of GPS, consisting of a separate set of satellites that are “visible” from around the world. By tuning into both GPS and Glonass satellites at the same time, a GPS chip can get a position fix more quickly and accurately. This approach is most useful in urban canyons, where tall buildings can block line-of-sight reception from satellites.

It’s not entirely clear what’s behind the widescale adoption of Glonass support — although the Russian government now mandates such dual support, which may have forced the issue — but it has the potential to benefit consumers. More accurate location tracking has become enormously important to advertising, services and even public safety on cell phones and other devices. Already, many phones and applications use a combination of GPS and Wi-Fi, such as that offered by Skyhook Wireless, to figure out where a subscriber is at any time.

Still, device makers may not incorporate the Glonass-capable chips into their devices sold outside of Russia, and they may not subscribe to the databases they would need in order to determine where a phone is using the system. Glonass has a storied history going back decades, but the satellite system fell into disrepair. A few years ago, Russia determined it wanted to become a satellite power again and promised to launch worldwide coverage for its Glonass system.

The project has a storied history detailed in this BBC article, which suggests the new Glonass constellation of satellites was a major publicity stunt aimed at fostering the perception that Russia had developed a viable competitor to the U.S.-sponsored GPS system when, in fact, its performance is subpar. But now, almost a year after that article was written, new satellites have launched, and it appears major chip vendors are willing to support Glonass, which means it’s up to device makers and services to launch Russia’s satellites into global prominence.

Image courtesy of NASA.

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