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The support for GLONASS and Galileo satellites is one of the new features being added to GPS watches lately. Well, it's more like a new feature added to the GPS chipset that later equips different devices whether they are watches, mobile phones, refrigerators or any other electronic device that has a global positioning system. Yes, any day of your fridge will have GPS.
When we look at the product's data sheet, compatibility with GLONASS and/or Galileo satellites is always highlighted, because when there are no more important developments to mention, reference to small changes is always a point to grasp.
But is it so important that your new watch has compatibility with GLONASS/Galileo? Is your current computer, which only connects to GPS, outdated? And therefore, will it stop working because it does not have compatibility with other types of satellites? Or will you have much more accurate tracks? Well, all these questions is what I will try to answer in this article.
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.
It consists of 31 satellites orbiting 19,100 km from the 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. By comparison, the US GPS system uses 24 satellites and orbits slightly further, 20,200 km.
Both GPS and GLONASS have a military beginning that has finally been able to be put to civilian use by all the inhabitants of the planet. They are currently the only two positioning systems in service, but they will not be the only ones.
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 portfolio. Paying a fee will get you better returns, although there are still a few years to find out this point in detail.
Unlike GPS and GLONASS, the Galileo system is still being deployed and, although it began at the end of 2016, its implementation is not expected to be complete until 2020.
But as I indicated before there are (or will be) several modes of use. The one that 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 (badly named, because I remember that GPS is the American system) compatible with the use of double band, something that we have not yet seen in watches or cycle computers.
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 be too careful about because it would be killing flies with guns.
Finally, China is also preparing its positioning system: Beidou. It should be fully deployed by 2020, but so far no device has announced compatibility with this network of positioning satellites.
Benefits of using GLONASS or Galileo
The use of GLONASS or Galileo confuses many users. There are many who think that using this option will directly increase the location accuracy. Or even the opposite. 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 location improvement is not direct, but rather indirect by increasing the number of satellites that the device can rely on to fix a position, so 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 whenever possible?
It depends on the situation and the places where you move. In my case, I always have the option off, except in rare cases. In my particular case, I don't get any benefit, but I am reducing the total battery life. But to understand it better, I'll give you an example with invented 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, other 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 arrive in 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 it all depends on the training zones you use. If they are complicated places the most advisable thing to do is to activate the use of GLONASS or Galileo satellites, despite the reduction in battery life (around 15%). But if you usually run in open air places without trees, mountains or buildings, you can leave the option off with complete peace of mind, as you will hardly see any difference in performance.
What is clear is that in no way will the use of GLONASS/Galileo reduce location accuracy, all you are doing is increasing the number of satellites available for triangulation.
And remember that location accuracy does not depend solely on the chipset used by the watch or device, nor on whether it supports GLONASS or Galileo or not. More important is the design of the antenna and the management of the software.
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).
GLONASS or Galileo compatible devices
Little by little GPS watches and cycling computers are coming onto the market, supporting more location systems, apart from GPS itself.
Garmin is adding support for both GLONASS and Galileo in its latest models. But in both cases it does so to support the GPS signal. That is, you can use either GPS + GLONASS or GPS + Galileo; but not GLONASS + Galileo. The use of GPS is non-negotiable, at least for the time being. And it won't allow us to opt for GLONASS + Galileo either.
So, should you choose GLONASS or Galileo to support the GPS? For the moment it is somewhat difficult to determine, in principle it may seem that if we are in Europe Galileo will offer better performance, but as it is not yet fully deployed GLONASS has more satellites.
Suunto has been adapting its models for the use of GLONASS, the latest being the Suunto 9 that after the update 2.5.18 is already compatible with the Russian satellite network, like the rest of the Spartans.
But they haven't said anything about Galileo yetWith the arrival of version 2.8.24 some Suunto's are already compatible with Galileo. Suunto 5 and Suunto 9 offer this possibility.
The same goes for PolarThe latest Vantage M and Vantage V models are compatible with GLONASS as well as GPS, but there are no new developments as yet for Galileo.
In both cases the latest models can be updated through a firmware update, as the chipsets they use are compatible with Galileo, so it would not rule out that when it already offers a performance that improves GLONASS the manufacturers do it.
Thanks for reading!