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GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou and QZSS | What it is and when to use it

What they bring above the GPS

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Until not many years ago, GPS watches were so called because they simply allowed to receive data from GPS satellites. We continue to call them GPS or GPS watches, but the truth is that it is a wrong name from the moment when the watches already allow receiving signal from GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou and QZSS satellites.

We have remained with the designation GPS, which is the acronym for Global Positioning System, to name any device that allows to triangulate a position from satellite data, but GPS is only one of the satellite constellations available. What would be the correct term? GNSS, Global Navigation Satellite System, which would encompass all satellite positioning systems.

Currently GNSS chipsets already have been supporting GLONASS and Galileo satellites for quite some time, and more recently BeiDou and QZSS have also been added. These chipsets are those that subsequently equip the different devices whether they be watches, mobile phones, fridges or any other electronic device that has a global positioning system. Yeah, any day your fridge will have GPS.

When we see the product specification datasheet, compatibility with GLONASS, Galileo or other systems always appears prominently. When there are no more important developments to mention, referring to small changes is always a good point to hold on to.

But, is it so important that your new watch has Glonass/Galileo/Beidou/QZSS compatibility? Is your current bike computer, which only receives GPS signal, outdated? And, therefore, will it stop working because it has no compatibility with other types of satellites? Or will you have a much more accurate track? Well, all these questions are what I will try to answer in this post.

What is GPS

It is the original positioning system, which is why we know in a familiar way any device capable of showing our location as “GPS”.

It uses a total of 32 satellites (started with 24) that orbit about 20.200km from earth. They have been distributed so that there are always at least 4 satellites visible from anywhere on the planet. Therefore, no matter where you are, you will always be able to triangulate your position with greater or lesser accuracy (the greater number of satellites visible, the more accurate triangulation).

GLONASS

It is owned by the United States Space Force, which is also responsible for its maintenance. It was developed by the army in the 1960s for military purposes only, to be used as a navigation system by the Navy. And so it was until, in 1983, President Ronald Reagan opened its use to the general public.

Originally they had no intention of opening public use, however the decision was made following a Soviet SU-15 identification error when it shot down a Korean commercial aircraft. But the public version would have its accuracy altered to an approximate radius of 100m in order to maintain an advantage for military use, thus ensuring more accurate data.

This also changed later (in 2000, during President Bill Clinton's term), so the accuracy is now determined by the device used and its specs, without any induced error.

What is GLONASS

The GLONASS positioning system is a direct legacy of the Cold War. Its name comes from the acronym "ГЛОбальная НАвигационная Спутниковая Система" which, after a few glasses of vodka, can be translated as "Global'naya Navigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema". In short, it is Russia's response to the GPS satellite system deployed by the United States.

Suunto 9 GLONASS

It consists of 31 satellites orbiting 19,100 km from earth. Not all of them are operational. There are three groups of 8 satellites orbiting at different points on the planet (providing global service), remaining for backup and different tests.

As with GPS, at first there was also an induced error (about 30 meters), removing such restrictions in 2007 to allow unlimited commercial use.

Both GPS and GLONASS have a military start that has finally been given civilian use by all the inhabitants of the planet. Currently they are the most used, but they are not the only ones. BeiDou has already started working, as has QZSS.

What is Galileo

For its part, the European Union (together with the European Space Agency) has launched the Galileo programme, which is for civilian use from the outset and promises a level of accuracy never before seen. The main difference Galileo will have is that, being for civilian use, its accuracy will depend on your wallet. Paying a fee will get you better performance, although there are still a few years to find out how this subscription model will work.

Garmin FR945 Galileo

Unlike GPS and GLONASS, the Galileo system is still being deployed and, although it began at the end of 2016, it is estimated that its implementation will not be complete until 2020, although everything seems to indicate that the deadline will not be met.

There are currently a total of 26 satellites deployed. 22 are in usable condition, 2 are not available for use and 2 are in testing. The goal is to complete the constellation with up to 30 satellites.

Satélites Galileo

But as indicated above there are (or will be) several modes of use. What matters to us in our type of use is the open service, with an accuracy of up to 1 meter. But for that you will need a GPS receiver (misnamed, because I as I said that GPS is the American system) that supports the use of dual band, something we haven't seen in watches or bike computers yet.

It is certainly the next step in GPS watch location capability, but there are no commercially available positioning chips yet to be used in wearables.

Then there will be other kind of payment services with more location accuracy (up to 1cm of error!), but believe me when I tell you that it is not something you should consider because it would be killing flies with guns.

Buscador de chollos

What is BeiDou

BeiDou (Great Bear in Chinese) is the satellite system of the People's Republic of China. It was initially launched only for China with a limited number of satellites. We are currently in the third generation, which already offers global coverage.

COROS - BeiDou

BeiDou completed its constellation of 35 satellites with the launch of its last satellite into orbit a month ago, thus being the system that offers a larger constellation and, according to the Chinese National Space Agency, is able to offer an accuracy of up to 10cm.

What is QZSS

QZSS, which comes from Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, is somewhat different from the previous ones. It is a development of Japan, but its goal is not to provide a global constellation as is the case with GPS, GLONASS and BeiDou; it is a correction system for the GPS system in Asia and Oceania, with special focus on Japan.

Polar QZSS

Currently only 4 satellites are available, with the intention of reaching up to 7 by 2023. But unless you are in that indicated area their use does not represent any improvement because there is no visibility to these satellites from other parts of the planet.

Why so many constellations?

After the review done to all existing satellite systems, I'm sure you ask yourself that question. Why are there so many satellite systems, instead of all collaborating on one of them? It is because of the military origin of the first systems, and because it is something unique to those countries.

At any time GPS, or GLONASS, could be disabled or degraded use, leaving not only millions of users without possibility of using it but also (and more importantly) blocking the navigation of ships, planes and all types of vehicles.

However, having so many different constellations is positive for users from the moment that we can use more than one system simultaneously, thus increasing the total number of satellites with which we can triangulate our position.

Benefits of using GLONASS/Galileo/BeiDou

The use of GLONASS, Galileo or BeiDou confuses many users. Many people think that using this option will directly increase localization accuracy. Or even the other way around. In fact I have come to read in more than one forum that it is better not to activate the use of GLONASS satellites because, far from improving the location, it makes it worse.

The reality is that the improvement of location is not direct, but rather indirect by increasing the number of satellites on which the device can rely to fix a position. Therefore it always depends on the situation you are in.

The benefit lies in the increased number of satellites from which to obtain positioning information, but it has a cost: increased battery consumption.

Should you use Glonass/Galileo/Beidou whenever possible?

With the advancement of technology, the answer to this question has changed. Some years ago the impact on the watches battery life was greater, because the consumption of watches was higher. The recommendation had always been to use only the GPS system to save battery, except if we were in difficult reception locations where it might be interesting to activate the use of other systems.

With current watches, battery life has grown exponentially. Especially in the newer models that equip the Sony GNSS chipset with very low battery consumption. So that reduction in battery life is no longer such a determining factor, and you can use more systems more carefree.

But you must understand that using more than one constellation will not cause your accuracy to improve noticeably. For you to understand better, I'll give you an example with fabricated data.

Imagine that you are running in the countryside on a treeless plain, therefore with a full view of the sky. That is to say, an ideal situation. At that moment your device may be picking up signals from 8-10 satellites of the GPS system, so the location will be quite precise. If you had the option of using GLONASS or Galileo active you could pick up, in addition to the previous 8-10 satellites, another 8-10 satellites of the Russian or European system. But the precision is not going to double, because in the first case it was already very good and you are not going to notice any difference.

Now you change training places. You get into a forest in a very mountainous area. You're running along a steep mountain surrounded by lush trees. That means there's hardly any visibility of the sky.

Your device, which used to pick up signals from 8-10 satellites, now cannot get them from more than 2 or 3, so the accuracy will be quite low or even impossible to triangulate (a minimum of three satellites is required).

At this moment you also activate GLONASS and you get signal from 2 or 3 other Russian satellites. You go from having data from 2 or 3 satellites with very bad results to 4-6. The results will still not be very accurate, but at least there will be location.

So everything depends on the training areas you use. If these are complicated locations, it is advisable to enable the use of GLONASS, Galileo or QZSS satellites, despite the reduction of battery life (around 15%). But if you usually run in open spaces without trees, mountains or buildings, you can leave the option off with total peace of mind, as you will hardly see any difference in performance.

What is clear is that by no means the use of GLONASS/Galileo/QZSS will reduce accuracy in location, all you are doing is increasing the number of satellites available for triangulation.

And remember that location accuracy does not depend exclusively on the chipset used by the watch or device, or whether it supports GLONASS/Galileo/BeiDou or not. More important is the design of the antenna and the management done by its firmware.

There are many examples of watches with GLONASS support that do not behave as well as others that do not have it, but have a better placed antenna (for example, Ambit3 watches that have a non-integrated antenna).

What is the best combination of satellites you should use

Well, I'm sorry to tell you there's no common answer I can give you. The best advice I can offer you is to try, because it all depends on where you are located. Below I will give you some indications of what has worked best for me right now, but it's not an absolute value because manufacturers continue to work on firmware improvements and will also depend on other variables.

Garmin

With Garmin we have the option to use only GPS, or combine it with GLONASS or Galileo. In both cases it does so to support the GPS signal. That is, you can use GPS + GLONASS or GPS + Galileo; but not GLONASS + Galileo. The use of GPS is non-negotiable, at least for the moment. Nor will it allow us to opt for GLONASS + Galileo. At the moment they do not offer support for BeiDou.

I configure Garmin devices with GPS+GLONASS, it is the option that gives me the best results with the new Sony chipsets.

Polar

Polar does not contemplate the exclusive use of GPS, it must always be in combination with other services: GPS + GLONASS, GPS + Galileo or GPS + QZSS.

Dismissing the third option (which as I indicated above would only be valid if we are in Oceania), I have unquestionably obtained the best performance with GPS + Galileo. The GPS+GLONASS combination has always led me to location errors that are not punctual, but persist for a few minutes, as you can see in the analysis of the Polar Grit X.

Suunto

Suunto has recently been working on satellite reception, adding different possibilities. At all times they combine the use of GPS + QZSS, no matter where we are. It also offers us the joint use of this system with any of the other constellations.

  • GPS + QZSS + GLONASS
  • GPS + QZSS + Galileo
  • GPS + QZSS + BeiDou

And which one do I keep? I think the third option is the one that offers slightly higher performance, although it is not an abysmal difference from the other two options. As I said, the best thing you can do is try out the different options and see what convinces you most.

COROS

COROS currently does not use Galileo and only allows you to combine GPS + GLONASS or GPS + BeiDou. There is a third option that is to use GPS exclusively.

In the tests I have done I have not noticed great differences with regard to the use of GLONASS or BeiDou, obtaining very similar results in all cases.

But I repeat, the most important thing to keep in mind is that these are the results I have obtained in my particular use and in the area I am. It can be similar to yours or totally different.

At least now that you have a more basic knowledge of what everything is and what it is for, it will allow you to make a more accurate choice.

And with that... thanks for reading!

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35 Comments

  1. Good article! The truth is that I always carry it off because I prefer that extra battery to the supposedly greater precision that I have noticed in tests I have done so far.

    1. I usually turn it off because for better or worse I almost always run parallel to the sea. No trees, buildings, mountains, etc. That is, perfect coverage, so adding some more satellites is not going to change my experience much.

      It's like I'm a billionaire and I'm playing the lottery...

  2. Excellent article, the truth is that you have cleared up some doubts I had about the Glonass and if it really brings always better positioning, but almost better to have an extra battery available, except for the problem cases that you say it can be good to activate it.

  3. A great article, I didn't know what the glonass was or what it was for, so I left it off... After reading the article I prefer the extra battery. Thanks, a greeting.

  4. Thank you for the article, although it contains some important errors:

    It should be noted that, although Galileo is not fully deployed, it is in an initial service phase, with 22 operational satellites, which are provided completely free of charge. For the street user, this makes practically no difference to the benefits he will obtain with Full Operational Capability. In short, Galileo can already be used perfectly in conjunction with GPS, Glonass and Beidou, freely and globally. And no, the greater precision that the system will provide with its high-precision service will not cost either.
    The battery usage depends on the number of channels in the receiver. If there are only a few (as is usually the case), it does not matter if one or several systems are activated: these channels will be 'filled' with the first satellites you catch.

    To find out if your device is equipped with Galileo, visit http://www.usegalileo.euAnd for any questions about the programme, the Galileo Service Centre in Madrid (www.gsc-europa.eu) is at your disposal.

    1. Thank you, Emilio, for your first-hand information.

      In the case of Garmin, which are the ones that do allow playing with the configuration of which satellites to search, you can check the difference in autonomy of that 15% when only GPS is activated or if GLONASS or Galileo is added. As for the payment service I was referring to the one specified on the web as "Commercial Service (CS)" which, I understand, will have a cost, right? (https://www.gsc-europa.eu/galileo-gsc-overview/services)

    2. For those of us who already have a powerful gps watch (in my case a Phoenix 3), I don't plan to change it until the sports gps watches are "gps dual band" and the Galileo system is fully deployed (for next year). This will be a real advance in terms of position accuracy and therefore the much more real calculation of distances and live running rhythms in a sports gps watch, until then (calculation that at most there will be models of this in 2021 almost certainly) there will not be a real qualitative jump in these wonderful gps. When they incorporate this, if it will be the time to retire my Phoenix 3.

    3. How can you tell if a device is equipped with a dual band chip like the Xiaomi Mi8, many times the manufacturers don't indicate it. For example the new Samsung S10 comes with a galileo compatible gps chip, but is it gps dual band? Definitely, there is a list of galileo compatible devices but I don't see a list of galileo dual band compatible devices.

      P.S.: is there a date (even if it is the month) for the launch of the 4 satellites that are missing to complete the constellation?

  5. I don't think the information you're providing is correct.
    If you have 2 GPS satellites and 3 glonasses in sight, you don't have 5 satellites, since the positioning systems don't share information between them. So it's not worth it, what the device does is to choose from the available systems the most favorable one and not the sum of all of them.

    And the suu.to watches already incorporated glonass from the vertical 3 scope .
    Greetings

    1. If you have 2 GPS satellites and 3 GLONASS satellites you have 5 points with which the watch can triangulate, regardless of who is giving the information.

      The Suunto Spartan came on the market without GLONASS support, was added later.

  6. Buenas tardes para suunto 9 baro que sugieres gps , gps glonaas o galileo, suelo correr por madrid río hay edificios y algunos árboles, pero las edificaciones están separadas, en mi caso, un saludo

    1. In Madrid Rio you have a very wide area where you shouldn't have signal problems. With GPS you should only have good reception at all times, however GPS+GLONASS won't hurt either if you don't need the range (something Suunto 9 has plenty of).

  7. Good afternoon, Eduardo,
    In my case, I live in Asturias and at the moment, just like your land, I start my journey to the seashore. At least during the week for my training. However, on each of my outings I set my watch to go out from a height of about 30m when it should really be close to 0.
    Perhaps it is a question of adjustment rather than the use of GPS GLONNES or GALILEO.
    Could you help me?
    Thank you in advance

    1. It's simply because of what I explain in the article about altitude and air pressure. The pressure is variable, so from one day to the next it's normal that it doesn't always mark the same even if you made a calibration 3 hours ago.

  8. Too bad, I know it wasn't the same as buying the Suunto9 BAR, but I didn't think I'd find these differences in an open space like the one I'm in, but rather in altitude, like peaks for example.
    Even my garmin Forerunner 225 gave me more accurate values.
    Thank you for everything.

  9. Great article!
    How about the running miles accuracy? That’s what I basically use a Garmin for, my first one is the 401. extremely accurate on the miles I was running, mountain or flat area. I compared them to the runners that were using suntus and high priced Garmin watch pieces. they were off almost 2 miles. Yep, the foretex 401, as big as it is and not sexy and doesn’t make my ass look big seems to be the most reliable. your thoughts, please.
    thanks!

    1. They are different animals...

      The 401 is not a watch, but a navigation handheld unit. Therefore is way bigger, so the GPS antenna is also much bigger.

      Also, it works with AAA batteries, so it doesn't have to put up with power saving.

      Those are the main reasons why, despite it's age, it works equally or better than today's watches.

  10. a ver si me podeis iluminar. Tengo desde hace meses suunto 9 sin baro. Está actualizado y en buen estado. Salgo a correr y da igual que sea dia nublado, soleado, montaña o asfalto, siempre me hace la mayoría del track por el margen externo de las rutas invadiendo cunetas y montes. Es raro el tramo que coincide con las carreteras o pistas. A qué se puede deber? es normal? lo curioso es que la distancia es la misma que si hago la ruta en google earth

  11. ¡Hola! me ha encantado el artículo, ¡felicidades!

    Quisiera hacer una puntualización, y es que estos satélites, hasta donde sé, no siguen órbitas geoestacionarias (en el ecuador y con la misma velocidad angular que la tierra, es decir, 24 horas/vuelta). No ocupan, por tanto, ubicaciones fijas en el cielo y, por eso, ocupan espacios alejados de la órbita media terrestre (MEO), para ganar ángulo, que cada satélite llegue al máximo de superficie en cada instante, y que el sistema precise menos satélites.

    Puntualizo esto porque está mal, a la fuerza, decir que los satélites japoneses no son visibles desde otros puntos del planeta. Se recorren todo el planeta. Sí es probable que el sistema esté enfocado a que siempre haya uno o varios satélites sobre Japón, y que el sistema no sea eficaz, por tanto, en ningún otro lugar. Y nada, que ese es el matiz, jeje.

    Nada más, ¡muchos saludos!

    1. El caso de QZSS es diferente. De los 4 satélites que tienen operativos, uno de ellos sí es geoestacionario. Los otros tres están en una “órbita cuasi-cenital”, y dibujan una órbita con forma de 8 entre Japón y Oceanía, con especial énfasis en Japón.

      Esa característica cenital les da una ventaja, y es que cuando la órbita del satélite está sobre Japón, se encuentra a gran altura y casi sobre la vertical de las ciudades, por lo que se evita el efecto rebote que puede existir con los edificios cuando la señal del satélite viene con inclinación.

      Puedes echar un vistazo a la explicación que hacen en la web oficial, aquí: https://qzss.go.jp/en/technical/technology/orbit.html.

  12. Entonces, en España, que recomendarías?? Por lo general iría mejor no tirar con los chinos entiendo??

    1. Depende de cada reloj. Al final del artículo tienes una lista de recomendaciones, de todas formas lo mejor es que vayas probando en tu caso concreto, pues no hay un “valor absoluto”.

  13. Hola! Me encanta el blog y la página web en general, recibo información muy importante y me ayuda a mejorar mis entrenamientos.

    Quería preguntarte una cosa que no sé si tiene mucho sentido, pero lo necesito para decidirme por un reloj GPS de calidad. Yo entreno sobre todo en asfalto, por la ciudad de Valencia. Sólo entreno en la montaña dos días al mes, aunque es cierto que me gustaría hacerlo más, pero ahora mismo por mi situación no puedo. Tal vez en asfalto entreno un 85% y un 15% en montaña y/o en playa (arena).

    Para mí es muy importante la precisión de la distancia, es decir, que tenga un buen GPS sin fallos muy importantes. Eso me permitiría saber la distancia más o menos real y, por tanto, el ritmo de carrera, y todo se hace más fiable. ¿Qué reloj o relojes me recomendarías que hayas visto que tengan una buena precisión del GPS?

    Otra pregunta, en relación a lo que has escrito hoy en el blog: si reinicias el reloj, ¿pierdes todos los datos de tus entrenamientos?

    Gracias por todo el trabajo que haces.
    Un saludo desde Valencia,
    Javier.

    1. Thank you, Javier.

      Afortunadamente a día de hoy, la recepción GPS de cualquier es realmente buena. Salvo casos puntuales no hay grandes diferencias de un modelo a otro y tenemos varias posibilidades para mejorar el registro. Si no corres en zonas de cobertura complicada no vas a tener problemas con la medición, y si es una zona complicada lo va a ser para cualquier reloj GPS.

      Los datos de entrenamiento no se pierden al reiniciar el reloj siempre que ya estén sincronizados en su plataforma correspondiente.

      1. Muchas gracias Eduardo por la respuesta.

        Una pregunta, al margen de Glonass, Galileo, GPS, etc… ¿sabes qué posibilidades hay para mejorar el registro? Tal vez me incline por Garmin 245 o el Polar Grit X. No has notado gran diferencia entre sus GPS, ¿no? Gracias por la ayuda, me es muy útil para elegir el reloj.

        A hug.

        1. Por si te sirve. Yo estoy con suunto 9, a secas. Estoy razonablemente contento. Muy fácil de usar y sin pijadas que muchas veces quedan sin uso. El rendimiento del Gps es bueno, las actualizaciones lo dejaron fino con las medidas de strava o trainingpeaks y la batería te da para 10-15 días. Eso sí, las notificaciones del móvil bajan mucho el rendimiento y no pasa de una semana como mucho. Garmin para mi tiene mucho extra que no usaré y polar anda un escalón por debajo, en mi opinión.

  14. Hola! Gracias por el blog. Dejé un comentario pero creo que no se logró publicar.

    Te preguntaba si me podrías recomendar un buen reloj GPS que fuera bastante preciso midiendo la distancia y que no tenga apenas errores en los tracks. Estoy pensando comprarme un reloj de gama media-alta, y entreno sobre todo por asfalto y en la playa, aunque dos o tres veces al mes voy a la montaña a entrenar, aunque será el 10% de mi entrenamiento.

    Thank you for everything,
    Javier.

  15. Hello
    Tengo el garmin fenix 6x y hace poco estuve en los Pirineos haciendo una ruta. Me sorprendió mucho que teniendo activado el gps+ galileo me diera un error tan grande en una zona en concreto. La zona que te comento es gavarnie. Es una zona que hay mucho monte con mucho desnivel.
    No sabrás si hay alguna página web, donde puedas elegir la mejor opción, dependiendo de tu ubicación? Gps+Glonas o Gps+galileo
    La verdad que con el dinero que valen muchos de los Gps a día de hoy, yo creo que ellos mismos se tendrían que adaptarse a la mejor opción y así también seguramente mejoraríamos la duración de la batería.

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