We are going to explain what GPS, GLONASS, BeiDou, and Galileo systems are so that you can learn to differentiate between them. Although colloquially we know all satellite navigation systems as GPS, you should know that GPS is only one of several alternatives that exist.
GPS is a project developed and controlled entirely by the United States, while in Europe there is an alternative called Galileo. As for the rest, they belong to alternatives created and controlled by other countries, although in general there are not many differences between them, the accuracy may depend on which one you use and where you are.
What is GPS?
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a system developed, installed, and used by the U.S. Department of Defense, and is currently owned by the U.S. Space Force. Its objective is to be able to determine the position of an object anywhere in the world with an accuracy that can reach centimeters if the differential GPS is used, although it is usually a few meters.
This is done using a network of several satellites that are in orbit at an altitude of 20,000 km above the earth. When you want to know your position, your GPS device will locate at least four of these satellites, and you receive from them a signal that by measuring how long it takes to reach you from each satellite, measures the distance to each one and with the position data of these satellites allows you to indicate your current three-dimensional position.
What is GLONASS?
GLONASS stands for Global’naya Navigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sputnikovaya Sistema, and is an alternative to GPS created by the Soviet Union. This global navigation satellite system is currently owned by the Russian Federation and has a total of 31 satellites in orbit at an altitude of 19,000 kilometers.
Like GPS, the GLONASS satellite network provides worldwide coverage, with accuracy similar to GPS, although in some parts of the world, such as the southern hemisphere, the accuracy of the U.S. system may be slightly better. In any case, several Android mobile manufacturers use it instead of GPS or combining both.
What is BeiDou?
BeiDou means Big Dipper in Chinese and is the global satellite navigation system created by China as an alternative to GPS. Its official name is BeiDou Experimental Navigation Satellite System, and it has a total of 30 satellites in orbit.
Like the other alternatives, it is capable of operating worldwide, although the accuracy depends on the area of the world where you are. In general, the location accuracy is 3.6 meters, although it can reach 10 cm in areas of Asia Pacific. Many Chinese cell phone manufacturers also use this system.
What is Galileo?
Galileo is a satellite navigation project funded and developed by the European Union and the European Space Agency (ESA). It aims to have a high-precision positioning system that is European in its own right so as not to depend on GPS or GLONASS. The idea is that the Galileo project will have better accuracy than these.
The idea is to create an alternative to GPS with an accuracy five times higher, and also is not shared with military purposes as happens with GPS or GLONASS, which means that the United States or Russia could disable their networks if they want to use them for their benefit for military operations. There is also the distrust that since GPS, GLONASS and Beidou are military projects, the responsible governments could use them for espionage purposes.
Galileo’s operation is the same as GPS, and your device would locate four or more of its satellites to calculate its distance to them, and through it calculate the exact point where you are on earth. The project started in 2020 with 26 satellites in orbit, and with the idea of launching four more to complete its network with 30.
What are the differences?
As you can see, all these systems generally serve the same purpose, to offer a satellite navigation system all over the world. In this way, wherever you are, you will be able to locate yourself if you have a device that is connected to these networks.
The accuracy may vary depending on each one. The Galileo system claims to be five times more accurate in location than GPS, whose accuracy is quite similar to GLONASS, while the Chinese system is a little behind, although it always depends on how far away you are from the country of origin.
The issue and main difference is who is in control of each of the networks. The European ESA decided to launch the Galileo project precisely to avoid having to rely on other governments, which could limit or close access to their positioning systems whenever they wanted.
At the user level, you are not going to have that much difference. In the long term, the Galileo project may seem more tempting as it wants to go a step further in accuracy, and some mobile manufacturers implement it. But it is the most recent and the one that will need the most time to fully exploit its possibilities.