With the proliferation of smartphones and other devices, the use of GPS — the global positioning system — has become ubiquitous. From pinpointing one’s location to getting directions online, satellite-based navigation is driving the interactive use of online maps.

Many may not be aware, however, that the GPS is operated by the U.S. government and that Japan does not have its own satellite-based navigation system.

But Japan is looking to develop its own GPS system in the near future that will make use of something called the quasi-zenith satellite system, which will be more precise.

The government says QZSS will play an important role in space policy and strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance by working in tandem with GPS. It expects the system to be a boon for the private sector in developing convenience-based services and products.

“The QZSS will strengthen industrial global competitiveness and make industry, daily life, and public administration more sophisticated and efficient,” the Cabinet Office claims on its website.

“(It) will also contribute to welfare of the Asia-Pacific region, enhancement of Japan’s presence there, a closer Japan-U.S. partnership, and broad areas of security, including improvement in the capacity to respond to natural disasters,” it says.

Some experts said Japan’s reliance on GPS could cause trouble during U.S. emergencies.

“I assume that the Japan-U.S. relationship will not change drastically, but it’s conceivable the U.S. may turn off or weaken GPS signals because of its relationship with other countries somewhere down the line,” said Hidetoshi Jindo, an expert at NEC Corp.’s QZSS promotion office.

“If that happens, it could be a big problem since there are many devices that depend on GPS in Japan,” including aircraft and cars, he said.

That’s one of the reasons Japan is seeking an alternative.

Japan launched its first quasi-zenith satellite, the Michibiki, as an experiment in 2010 and plans to put three more into orbit over the next two years, with QZSS services eyed sometime in 2018.

The system will eventually expand to a total of seven satellites by 2023 that will enable Japan to acquire location information solely from QZSS. But since QZSS is compatible with GPS, collaboration is likely to occur, raising the possibility of Tokyo and Washington cooperating more closely on space and security endeavors.

With a budget of about ¥200 billion, the government has contracted Mitsubishi Electric Co. to develop the satellites and NEC to head up the creation of most of the ground infrastructure needed to field the QZSS signals.

What’s notable about QZSS is that it is capable of providing centimeter-level information. This is made possible by the satellites’ “quasi-zenith orbit,” which will allow at least one to hover directly above Japan at all times.

“This is something fundamentally different from GPS,” said NEC Corp.’s Jindo. “There are 31 GPS satellites orbiting Earth and about five of them are constantly flying over Japan, but they go away quickly.”

The GPS system also has its weaknesses: Reception can be unstable because of interference from mountains and buildings, depending on where the satellites are.

This a familiar experience for those who have tried to navigate using a smartphone app, only to see it fail.

With QZZS, however, one satellite will be always above Japan at an elevation angle of over 80 degrees, making signal blockage virtually impossible.

It will also allow data accuracy to be refined to the centimeter level.

Civilian GPS data is provided in degrees of 10 or more meters.

With such high-precision data available, the government expects the private sector to take advantage by coming up with an array of new products and services.

For instance, Jindo said, QZSS signals could be used for agricultural automation. By attaching QZSS receivers to modified tractors and combines, farmers could use autonomous driving to cultivate their fields.

“Places like Hokkaido have vast farmlands. If the machines can plow the fields by themselves, it would be amazingly convenient,” he said. “Such experiments have been taking place and I think they are coming quite close to practical use.”

Similarly, QZSS technology could be applied to construction work, such as digging projects, he said.

Advertisers would also stand to benefit if the technology could be used to automatically email coupons to people as they walk by their clients’ shops.

Disaster prevention is another field likely to benefit from QZSS technology. The system has a programmable messaging capability that allows it to dispatch emergency alerts to people in areas hit by natural disasters and warn others to evacuate.

Jindo hopes the launch of the QZSS in 2018 will allow Japan to develop services it can showcase to the world during the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Other hurdles remain, however, including the lack of QZSS-capable maps.

Because the QZSS has such a high degree of accuracy, maps will need to be extremely detailed for anyone to benefit. The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan appears to rely on a scale of 1:25,000, meaning 1 cm represents 250 meters. That won’t be small enough to make use of QZSS data.

Although there are municipal maps available with scale of 1:500, they are hard to update and thus difficult to provide to third-party users.

This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in coming years.

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