BeiDou is ready to take on GPS

Business & Technology

Chinese companies are advancing Beidou, China’s satellite navigation system, in a race for global dominance.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

In May 2021, Qianxun Spatial Intelligence 千寻位置, a high-precision positioning service provider based on China’s BeiDou 北斗 Satellite Navigation System, announced it was ready to provide centimeter-level high-precision services to users in the Asia-Pacific region, claiming to be China’s first provider of “satellite-earth integration” infrastructure.

Today, Qianxun announced that as of March 22, it had provided 2 trillion services to 1.1 billion people in 230 countries and regions, making it the world’s largest spatiotemporal intelligence service provider.

The Chinese government is actively promoting the adoption of BeiDou worldwide. The 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025) specifically mentions the goal of furthering the promotion and application of the system.

Qianxun’s phenomenal rise in such a short period is mirrored by the emergence to global prominence of BeiDou from 2015, when China launched the third-generation (BeiDou-3) system, and 2018, when the latter started to provide global services:

  • BeiDou’s development has come with the system’s mass application on consumer devices, and integration with a range of industries such as transportation, public safety, and agriculture.
  • In July 2020, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 attended BeiDou-3’s official opening ceremony in Beijing, and 2021 was considered to be the first year of the system’s large-scale application.
  • In 2021, Xinhua proclaimed that China’s satellite navigation industry was growing at 20% annually, and is expected to account for an industry of domestic products and services worth 1 trillion yuan ($156.22 billion) by 2025.
  • In a report published this morning, the NDRC 国家发展改革委 estimated the current scale of China’s satellite navigation industry at 400 billion yuan ($62.83 billion).

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The major companies: Qianxun, which has so far raised around $150 million in investment, is one of a number of emerging Chinese companies in this field:

  • Azimuth Technologies 上海方位角数据科技有限公司, founded in May 2021, produces indoor positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) systems, and completed an angel round of financing of nearly 100 million yuan ($15.70 million) in November.
  • Definition Smart Technology (Changzhou) 德心智能科技(常州), founded in June 2020, produces millimeter-wave radar technology, and completed a Pre-A round of financing worth “tens of millions” in January.

The era of BeiDou’s global competitiveness has begun. With growing commercial and political ties around the world, especially in the Global South, Chinese cutting-edge service companies like BeiDou — as well as companies like Qianxun and Azimuth — are likely to see widespread global adoption in the years to come.

BeiDou’s rise to prominence alongside Russia’s GLONASS, the EU’s Galileo, and the U.S.’s GPS systems marks another inflection point in the story of China’s rise.