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World Superpowers Are in a Space Race to Build the Best GPS

Photographer: Mark Evans and NASA's Visible Earth

A satellite orbitng the earth. Close

A satellite orbitng the earth.

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Photographer: Mark Evans and NASA's Visible Earth

A satellite orbitng the earth.

All around the world, people use GPS to get driving directions in their cars, find nearby restaurants on their smartphones and geotag tweets sent from their tablets. The technology, created and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, has become ubiquitous and indispensable.

And that may be making other governments uneasy, especially in light of the National Security Administration's snooping scandal. China, Russia, Japan, India and the European Union are each working on their own satellite systems to identify the locations of mobile devices on the ground.

So to stay ahead, the U.S. government is turning to the private sector. This year, the U.S. Air Force Research Lab plans to kick $15 million into technology startups developing tools for satellite-based navigation, positioning and timing. Grant applications are due by Jan. 22, and the Air Force won't take an equity stake in the companies it gives money to, said Joel Sercel, the founder and president of ICS Associates, a tech consulting firm that's advising the Air Force on the program.

"The Air Force wants to reach the best people in Silicon Valley," Sercel said in an interview. "It only asks to license the intellectual property that gets created during the contract for government use, with no dilution of ownership."

Alok Das, the Air Force Research Lab's chief innovation officer, wrote in an e-mail that the U.S. wants "to fundamentally improve its ability to navigate around the world."

Not all countries are looking to supplant America's efforts. For example, government projects in India and Japan are each building out satellite systems that can precisely cover nearby regions, primarily for military and government research — not to replace the Global Positioning System as a service embedded in millions of consumer electronics. The European Commission's Galileo project serves, in part, as a failsafe in case GPS and similar services become unavailable, according to the European Space Agency, which works jointly with the commission.

China has larger ambitions. The country began working on its Beidou Navigation Satellite System in 2000 and plans to achieve global coverage by 2020. Beyond preventing the U.S. from being able to easily track citizens' location information, the system could end up being more accurate. The version of GPS that the U.S. makes publicly available is less precise than the one its government uses. China is offering Beidou for free to encourage neighboring Asian countries to adopt it, according to the South China Morning Post.

For now, Russia is further along in creating a rival to GPS. In 2011, Apple began supporting the Russian Glonass system in the iPhone, and other device makers have followed suit. But a new U.S. law could serve as a major setback for Russia. A provision within the defense budget that was passed last month effectively bars Russia from building monitor stations in the U.S. designed to improve Glonass, the New York Times reported.

The U.S., it turns out, is concerned about spying.

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