Olivia Wilson, a geoscientist and mapping specialist, wrote for The Interpreter in November about the mythical Sandy Island.

The Beidou Navigation Satellite System is China's version of GPS. We all know that abbreviation and use it more than we think. GPS is the US Global Positioning System, which allows us to know where we are with impressive accuracy. It's what your pilot used to get you home on your last plane trip, how guided missiles find their target and how Siri knows where you are when providing you with a traffic update. 

It is also what enables us to live in a world with driverless cars and a booming drone industry.

GPS and other global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) work by providing accurate position and timing information from a satellite constellation (24 satellites, in the case of GPS) in space. This requires significant technological expertise and enormous investment.

The US was the first nation to maintain a truly global service. The Soviet/Russian equivalent, GLONASS, has a rocky history, but was fully operational in 2011. Japan's QZSS only really enhances GPS in Japan, the EU's Galileo system isn't quite off the ground (China was contributing but pulled out in favour of an independent system).

China appears on track for its target of a global system by 2020 and is likely to be able to provide the sustained expenditure required to keep a satellite constellation running. Coverage is now claimed as being available across the Asia Pacific, including Australia. Consumer confidence was boosted by the release of the Interface Control Document last December, which holds the critical information required to build receivers that can use the Beidou signal to calculate a position. The company MediaTek just announced the mass production of their Beidou enabled chip this week which will be used for positioning systems as well as mobile phones.

All of these GNSS have both military and commercial applications; military signals are more accurate but have restricted access. China's Beidou was initially thought to be intended solely for military purposes and therefore not in competition with the EU's Galileo. The Galileo consortium had even intended to generate revenue from selling receivers and commercial signal subscriptions in China. This was all side-swiped when China announced its intentions for an open service in 2006, albeit at an accuracy of 10 metres.

Beidou will never be a positioning panacea; GNSS systems have never worked indoors or under bridges. Jamming and even spoofing will always be a threat. Beidou will, however, provide a legitimate rival to GPS and redundancy for critical industries reliant on GPS, such as shipping and aviation.

What makes Beidou significant is that it is actually looking to rival GPS on a commercial basis. The Chinese Government is now ardently promoting Beidou's commercial application by mandating its use in various private sector entities in China. The Chinese Government's control over its domestic market also generates incentives for foreign investors to use Beidou. European GNSS manufacturer Septentrio, for example, impatient with the progress of Galileo, is looking to sell Beidou-enabled products to China and other Asian markets.

Beidou is also a significant asset for the Chinese military, given the US controls the most widely used positioning system in the world. The US openly acknowledges the use of localised denial of GPS in the battlefield, and there are still memories of 'selective availability' of GPS (which introduced a randomised error and drastically reduced positioning accuracy), a capability which was switched off in 2000. Selective availability has apparently never been reinstated, and the US has made reassuring announcements that this will be permanent.

This is good news for users. With the competitive emergence of Beidou and GLONASS, the US has greater incentive to provide a high quality service to maintain its leadership in commercial GNSS provision.

What Beidou also signals is China's technological advancement on a global scale. 

Photo by Flickr user jackharrybill.