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GLONASS and Galileo, what it is and when to use it

What they bring to the table above GPS

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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 Is your current computer, which only connects to GPS, outdated?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.

Garmin Fenix 3 - GLONASS

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.

Buscador de chollos

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!

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22 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. Good afternoon for suunto 9 baro you suggest gps , gps glonaas or galileo, I usually run in madrid river there are buildings and some trees, but the buildings are separated, in my case, a greeting

    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

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