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GLONASS: sink without being used

GLONASS: sink without being used

22.12.2010 — Analysis

The hope for GLONASS, a Russian navigation system, scheduled for 2010, sank in the Pacific Ocean. On December 5, three satellites that were supposed to draw the line under all the preliminary work plummeted into the ocean near Hawaii. The new launch is scheduled for the end of this December and March in the next year. However, the experts interviewed by "RusBusinessNews" see the project as unpromising. In their opinion, even if all the satellites are successfully put into orbit, domestic navigators will not be able to compete with the American GPS and European GALILEO that is currently being built in Europe. 

GLONASS was created in the USSR in the early 80s for military purposes. Ten years later, 24 operating satellites were put into orbit - this very number allowed global deployment of the system. The advantages of application of GLONASS for civil purposes became obvious: portable navigation devices made it possible to trace location and traveling speed of any vehicles and people within the accuracy of one meter. 

The perestroika and its economic consequences upset all the plans, and the GLONASS project was suspended. Eventually, the group of 24 satellites became overage. By 2001, there were only six satellites in orbit. The ground control system also became obsolete.

The new Russian government retrieved the idea, setting the goal to deploy the system within the country coverage by 2008, and within the world - by 2010. Six launches of a Proton-M carrier rocket were to be made during three years to put 18 satellites into orbit. By the end of 2009 the group would consist of 24 apparatuses. 

The launch of the last three was postponed till the end of 2010 due to some technical reasons. As of early December there were 23 satellites in orbit, including the two stand-by satellites. However, the plan did not work out. On December 5, the carrier rocket with three space apparatuses deviated from its course and fell into the Pacific Ocean. The accident was caused by a computation error resulted in two-ton fuel overload of the Proton-M upper-stage rocket.

On the other hand, the satellites that crashed into the ocean constitute only the official version. Where are the satellites, together with the budget billions spent on them? - that is the question. The first inspections undertaken by the prosecutor's office revealed curious facts. For example, the apparatuses were insured in a little-known Moscow company whose authorized capital amounted only to 37 million rubles. No tenders to select an insurer had been held by Roscosmos.

GLObal fiasco 

The loss of three satellites ruined any hope for proper operation of GLONASS even within Russia. 18-20 apparatuses were expected to be sufficient to receive "Russian" signals continuously. However, the estimation was wrong - at present the system consisting of 21 satellites is operating very poorly. "We ran an experiment that showed that signals informing about the location of a car moving during one day could be received at one-two hour lag. The transmitter kept silent during the rest of the time. Therefore, it is too early to talk about the efficiency of GLONASS", informed Ruslan Mubarakshin, the sales manager of Navigation Technologies, a Ekaterinburg company.

The experts say that today GLONASS is losing out "without scoring a point" to the American GPS (NAVSTAR) in terms of functionality. The GPS localization error does not exceed 1.5 meters, whereas it is ten times larger with GLONASS. Moreover, according to Mikhail Fadeyev, an independent expert in satellite navigation systems, parameters of the new generation of Russian satellites, one of which sank in the Pacific Ocean, also do not match American apparatuses. Besides, Russia has not created a navigation receiver that would have parameters comparable to the foreign devices so far. 

Lev Belsky, Deputy General Director of NPO Avtomatika Federal State Unitary Enterprise, asserts that the GLONASS localization error has decreased from 70 to 3-5 meters within the last years. The service life of satellites is also coming closer to the American parameters: new apparatuses are scheduled for 7 years instead of the previous 2-3 lifetime. Besides, if previously the navigator weighed 25 kilograms, today it can be compared with an eraser in its size (30 by 40 millimeters and 4 millimeters thick). 

"The hardware components are primarily imported. The chip pattern (the electronics know-how) is developed in Russia, but components are manufactured abroad - we do not have adequate equipment. Though, at present, the first cell production facilities are being opened in the country", L. Belsky notes. Sergei Novoseltsev, General Director of the Radio Equipment Factory, agrees with him. "Today, all over the world, navigation receivers are made from the similar components. There is a problem regarding their size and characteristics, but it can be solved within three years", he states. 

The price is another significant factor that makes the American system different from the Russian one. The home-made navigation set for a bus or a minibus taxi costs 1.5-2 times as expensive as the imported equivalent - 25 thousand rubles on average. 

Electronic brains for dumb roads

By January 1, 2011 all buses and taxes as well as vehicles carrying hazardous cargoes must be equipped with Russian transmitters. According to law makers' logic, such precaution will improve traffic safety. The order is still in effect, though the GLONASS deployment program has been rescheduled. 

Sellers of navigation equipment state that the demand for it started to increase in autumn of 2010. Most of the carriers buy combined GPS/GLONASS receivers - while the home system is out of service, the signal is transmitted through GPS.

"By the end of this year we will have installed equipment in all commuter buses. The information about their location and speed will come to the operator's monitor, and later, when GLONASS is put into operation, to the Ekaterinburg administration. We will be able to provide efficient transport management", Yuri Minin, Director of UVA-Trans LLC, says. In his opinion, the "two-in-one" receiver costs at least by 10% more that the GLONASS navigator. The transportation company will bear installation costs. 

Not all carriers are willing to incur such expenses. Alexander Neuimin, Director of Trans Plus LLC (the Sverdlovsk Region), thinks that the government should subsidize purchasing and maintenance of navigators or incorporate additional expenses in the ticket price. "The situation with safety belts is very identical. The price for one set can be as high as 1.5-2 thousand rubles. Equipment for 30 intercity buses will cost a lot of money, and carriers just don't have it ", he points out. 

A. Neuimin thinks that the location of a vehicle can be traced by means of a cell phone that is available to every driver. Undoubtedly, the navigator can be stuffed with different options, such as speed, fuel flow and passenger flow control. However, such options will result in additional expenses. "They'd better repair roads and clean them from snow - then there will be much fewer accidents", he asserts. 

Leonid Olshansky, Vice-President of Movement of Russia's Automobilists, agrees with him. He says that somebody decided to use the budget another time instead of building the roads that would comply with the present-day standards: "The smart transport system can be adopted when there is well-developed road infrastructure. We are again putting the cart before the horse".

There is another Russian paradox - specification requirements to GLONASS devices will be ready only in 2011. The receivers that are being installed now will have to be replaced if they do not comply with these requirements. Part of the money spent by transportation companies will turn out to be cast to the wind. However, budget expenses on GLONASS, which is useless so far, amount to dozens of millions rubles. For example, the Kurgan Region, which can hardly make both ends meet, allocated 7 million rubles to install receivers in 25 school buses.

Caution, no through road ahead... 

Starting from 2013, new automobiles will be equipped with home-made navigators. According to different estimates, their price will consequently increase by 5-20%. In the meantime, experts think that even after the "sky umbrella" has been unfolded completely, GLONASS is most unlikely to have its market. Sergei Novoseltsev asserts that transportation companies account for only 23% of the total number of prospective users of domestic receivers. The other part includes private consumers who use cell phones and navigators for navigation. But it is not easy to capture them. "They do not care about attempts made by government authorities to support local manufacturers. They will buy what is cheaper; it means that they will invest in foreign technologies", he anticipates. 

Imposing of customs duties on imported receivers, which, in fact, means another tax on consumers' wallet, will help to keep Russian defense companies afloat, but it cannot guarantee self-sufficiency of Russian technologies. S. Novoseltsev is sure that GLONASS will never become a global system. The reason is obvious: the West bewares of deployment of the "Glonass scenario" that can be similar to the gas scenario. That is why, for military purposes the Russian system will be used only by a very small group of the Kremlin satellite countries. The USA, which also regularly disconnects their enemies from GPS, has much more allies, and, consequently, the sale market for receivers is wider. The American system has also economic significance in addition to military considerations. 

Mikhail Fadeyev agrees that GLONASS is a politically charged project and has not economic feasibility what so ever. Therefore, in four years, when the European GALILEO system comes into being, its Russian counterpart will not be interesting to anybody.

However, Lev Belsky thinks that such conclusions are too hasty. "At present there are many companies both in Russia and in other countries that manufacture combined GLONASS and GPS receivers. They have excellent prospects, for any system is not immune to failures: there can be situations when satellites are on the horizon, therefore, precise localization can be very difficult. Existence of several systems provides the possibility of solving the key problem: it will always be possible to find four satellites required to determine a location", he is sure.

Marina Sirina, Vladimir Terletsky

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