India’s own GPS: Isro tying up with Xiaomi to get its positioning right

FE Bureau
Your phone has a GPS receiver, which, when turned on, is pinged by nearby satellites, which help triangulate the position.

Isro, according to a report in the Economic Times, will be tying up with phone-maker Xiaomi to incorporate its chips to run navigation system in its phones. Qualcomm has agreed to produce chips for Isro.

While most smartphones come equipped with US-powered GPS, this will be one of the few attempts by a national space agency to collaborate on a commercial scale. Isro itself will develop solutions for defence, but for commercial operations, it plans to rope in other players.

What is GPS?
Global Positioning System is a network of 30+ satellites controlled by the US. While the system was developed for military, it has now been put to commercial use. These satellites are located at an altitude of 20,000 km and work via radio signals. While the acronym GPS has come to denote all navigation systems, the names are different for other countries. Russia's system is called GLONASS. Europe has Galileo, and China has Beidou. The Japanese system is called Quasi. The Indian navigation system, which is the most recent of them all, has been named NAVIC (Navigation with Indian Constellation) or Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS).

How does the GPS in phones work?
Your phone has a GPS receiver, which, when turned on, is pinged by nearby satellites, which help triangulate the position. So, for instance, if there are three satellites, they will each create an area of reference, and the intersection of these areas will reveal your location. The more the satellites, the more accurate GPS becomes. While this is ideally how the technology should work, phones come with something called assisted GPS or AGPS. As location and radio signals may take time and are also battery consuming, AGPS uses the cell-phone triangulation to provide faster transmission. So, when cell towers can triangulate your position, you can get your location on the move, whereas the GPS can adjust till then to your actual location. The location is certainly not as accurate as of the GPS but is undoubtedly quick.

Is NAVIC any different?
Not really. India will not have to rely on the navigation of other countries for its defence needs. But the principle for phones remains the same. Phones will house a receiver for NAVIC satellites so that they can use Isro's navigation system. Isro has tied up with Qualcomm to create NAVIC chips, its association with Xiaomi would ensure that there are enough NAVIC-enabled phones. Over time, it can tie up with other manufacturers.

Why does India need a native GPS?
One reason is defence. At present, our navigation needs depend on systems of other economies. This will ensure that Indian forces have an indigenous system. More important, it shall also help the government with data on transportation and location in the country, helping it improve services. Two, there are limitations to GPS that NAVIC may overcome. NAVIC can give local data with much more accuracy.

Will NAVIC be better than GPS ?
This depends on the government. NAVIC can provide the government with traffic data, which can help with the planning of new infrastructure. It can also help with geo-tagging and recognising, which areas need more public services. Google Maps, for instance, has been successful in India, but it still encounters problems as the government does not allow Google to survey Indian areas. If NAVIC is allowed these capabilities, it could surpass Google in local transportation.

Isn't it better to mandate these chips?
Diktats may not have the same impact as collaborations. Besides, roping in private players can help expand the base much faster than the government trying to build on technology. Allowing private players to operate on capabilities can also help discover new areas where NAVIC can be of use.

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