Japan on Thursday launched a satellite that provides more accurate geolocation information in combination with GPS, making it possible to improve guidance services for the emergence of self-driving cars and delivery drones.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. launched an H-IIA rocket carrying the Michibiki No. 2 satellite from Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture at 9:17 a.m. The satellite entered orbit 28 minutes later, JAXA announced.
The satellite, which sends out similar positioning information provided by the GPS system of the United States, will provide more accurate geolocation information to digital devices like smartphones. Compared with public GPS services, which have a margin of error of several meters, the new Japanese system will apparently offer accuracy down to the centimeter level.
Japan depends mostly on the U.S. GPS satellite network for its location information. But the Japanese satellites, which will basically stay in orbit above Japan and the Asia-Oceania region, will allow signals to be received unhampered by skyscrapers or mountains.
The highly precise system will likely play a significant role in controlling drones, self-driving cars and other autonomous machines that use location satellites, said Shogo Yakame, a consultant for Nomura Research Institute Ltd.
Yakame said the technology will be especially helpful in such shorthanded industries as agriculture and parcel delivery, which are seen shifting to large-scale automation.
“For example, the homemade system allows unmanned agricultural machinery to run automatically with centimeter-level precision,” he said. “Many sectors that had required human power can be done more effectively with fewer people.”
The satellites can also provide disaster information in emergencies, helping the government to communicate with the public even when infrastructure is lost, according to JAXA.
Thursday’s launch was the second of a satellite for the home-grown location system since September 2010. The government aims to launch two more by the end of March 2018 and start the service on April 1.
Using four satellites allows at least one to be above Japan at any time, which means the system can always provide precise location information in tandem with GPS satellites. The government plans to expand the system to seven satellites around fiscal 2023 so Japan can end its dependence on GPS.
The successful launch of Michibiki No. 2 is a secure step toward that, Yosuke Tsuruho, the minister for space policy, said in a statement.
“We will continue to cooperate with our stakeholders toward the service’s official launch from fiscal 2018,” he said.
Other nations, including China, India and Russia as well as the European Union, are developing their own geolocation systems as well.
These countries are trying to reduce their dependence on GPS, which was developed by U.S. for military purposes and is run by Department of Defense, to improve their security, Yakame of NRI said.
“Many services around the world today have depended on GPS for location information. But given the recent state of international affairs and security concerns, it became a question whether it is right to depend on a satellite system operated by one country,” he said.
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