Not sure about the difference between GPS, GLONASS and Galileo? You’re definitely in the right place! I’ll do my best to explain each Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) in detail, and I will talk about all the key differences between the three navigation systems.
GPS, GLONASS and Galileo are all global navigation satellite system. There are several differences between them like the number of satellites each system has in its constellation and positional accuracy, but the key difference is the country of origin of the GNSS.
GPS is owned by the United States, GLONASS is owned by Russia and Galileo is EU’s project. That’s the easiest way to differentiate between the three systems, but all the other features are even more important when it comes to real world use. And that’s exactly what we will be talking about in the rest of this comparison!
Note: This is quite a technical subject and I have done my best to research and break it all down. If there are issues or mistakes, don’t hesitate to comment at the end (I seem to be getting a lot of “complaints” already for not being perfect :>)
Most of the world uses GPS, and a lot of those people don’t even know that they have other options they can use. So, what’s the point of having multiple global navigation satellite systems, if we’re all going to use the same one? Especially when you have so many devices that don’t even let you use Galileo or GLONASS on their own, and instead you are forced to use them together with GPS?
The thing is, each of these systems is controlled by a different government. That government can do whatever they want with their satellite system, meaning that the USA could theoretically just decide to completely take down GPS. If we didn’t have any alternatives, we’d be in an awkward situation – to put it mildly.
Apart from these three systems, China, India and Japan also have their own alternatives, but those are nowhere near as reliable as the already established options. Also, only the Chinese BeiDou operates globally – India’s NavIC and Japan’s QZSS only operate regionally.
However, civilians don’t always get the option of choosing which satellite system they want to use. America is a great example of this, since their FCC requires all receivers that that use non-US signals to be licensed. The weird part is that there are millions of manufacturers that are selling non-licensed device with GLONASS, so presumably the Russians found a way round that rule. EU’s Galileo was approved by the FCC only in 2018 – two years before that, you couldn’t see any Galileo satellites on your phone, even if its chip was able to detect them.
GPS or Global Positioning System is a satellite navigation system owned by the United States. The satellite constellation was first launched in 1978, which makes it the oldest navigation system ever. And that’s perhaps the main reason why it is so widely used everywhere around the world.
American GPS currently has around 30 operational satellites in orbit, at an altitude of 12,540 miles. This altitude is known as Medium Earth Orbit, and all of GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day. There should ideally be four such GPS satellites visible to the person on the ground using GPS at any one time.
It is worth noting that the number of operational satellites in orbit for each of these systems changes frequently as new ones are constantly being launched.
Now, let’s talk about the most important feature of any GNSS, which is positional accuracy. The positional accuracy of GPS is up to 5 meters under the open sky, which is pretty good. And for years, decades even, that was the standard that all the other satellite navigation systems were supposed to offer. Remember that GPS was the only global precision positioning system for quite some time, and over time it has practically become synonymous with GNSS. A lot of people take it for granted that GPS is simply what determines your location, without even thinking about the fact that they phone is receiving data from American satellites in Earth’s orbit.
But, GPS is no longer the fastest or the most accurate navigation system out there. And there are lots of benefits to using one of the other system in combination with GPS. I will tell you all about those later; first, let’s take a more detailed look into GLONASS and Galileo!
GLONASS stands for GLObal NAvigation Satellite System, and it is owned by Russia. The first GLONASS satellite was launched in 1982 – just 4 years after the US launched their own GPS satellites. However, it is worth noting that the constellation of GLONASS satellites was fully operational in 1995, but taken down soon after that because of funding issues. It wasn’t until the late 90s that this system was made one of the top priorities again.
By 2010, GLONASS had managed to cover the entirety of Russian territory, and by 2011 all of the satellites from the constellation had been fully functional again. But, bear in mind that American GPS operated globally since 1993 – GLONASS had a lot to prove if it were to compete with the already established system everyone used.
In many ways GPS and GLONASS are practically the same thing. GLONASS satellites are on an altitude of 11,890 miles, which is just a 600-mile difference from the GPS satellites. In space, that’s completely negligible. Additionally, GLONASS satellites are also using Medium Earth Orbit, and they are able to complete 2.125 revolutions around the Earth in a day. They are able to complete a single revolution 30 minutes faster than GPS satellites, but only because they are slightly closer to Earth.
In real world use, that means absolutely nothing. The one thing that you might benefit from is the fact that GLONASS satellites offer a precision accuracy range of 4.5 to 7 meters. But even that means that sometimes they are more accurate than GPS, and other times they are not. In practical use, people usually find GLONASS to be slightly less accurate than GPS.
Galileo is the youngest of all of these navigation systems and it is a project being developed by the European Union. It’s important to note that Galileo is supposed to be fully operation by the end of 2020, with a total of 30 satellites in the constellation. Out of those 30, 24 are supposed to be fully operational satellites, and the remaining 6 are supposed to be spares. The first test Galileo satellite was launched in 2005, but we didn’t see an actual operational satellite in the orbit until 2011. The navigation system itself only became operational in 2016.
Galileo satellites are at an altitude of 14,429 miles, which is higher than both GPS and GLONASS. Because of that, it takes them longer to complete a single revolution (around 14 hours), meaning that they can only complete 1.7 revolutions in a 24-hour period.
The main purpose of Galileo is to provide a high-precision position system independent of GPS and GLONASS, so that European nations don’t have to rely on US or Russian satellites. Also, Galileo satellites are supposed to offer better accuracy than both GLONASS and GPS – it is estimated that civilian users can expect accurate positioning up to 1 meter, which is quite impressive.
European satellites also offer better positioning services at higher latitudes compared to both GPS and GLONASS, which is one of their main advantages. Additionally, Galileo is actually more reliable in urban environments, where tall buildings can easily block satellite signals. Using a combination of GPS and Galileo is great for getting around unknown cities, especially in Europe.
Galileo has been available in the United States since late 2018, but whether or not you are able to use it depends on the chip in your phone. There are tonnes of different smartphone manufacturers, and they are practically the ones who decide which GNSS your phone will be able to use. The upside is that most newer devices are able to see all satellites, ensuring that your phone’s navigation is as precise as it can be.
In most cases, you can’t actually choose which GNSS you want to use. You can combine both Galileo and GLONASS with GPS, but you can rarely opt to use just GLONASS or just Galileo – at least in the States.
But, there are some benefits to using a combination of two satellite systems. When you are using just GPS, your device can choose between 30 different satellites to pinpoint your signal. But when you use GPS with GLONASS or with Galileo, that number of visible satellites is almost double. This does mean that the device is able to pinpoint your exact location faster, and in some cases even the positional accuracy is improved. Keep in mind that your receiver needs to connect to four satellites to determine your location – when you’ve enabled both GPS and GLONASS or Galileo, the device simply has more satellites to choose from, allowing it to be faster and more precise.
GLONASS is generally more precise in mountainous regions, while Galileo offers better accuracy in urban environments. When you combine either of these two systems with GPS, your receiver will usually be dead on about your location.
Additionally, if you want the ability of using more than just one navigation system, you will have to make sure that your device allows for it. And this is especially true if you’re interested in testing out the accuracy of Galileo satellites – devices that were manufactured before 2016 likely won’t be able to receive signals from European satellites.
Want to test the accuracy of Galileo satellites? Well, chances are that your phone is already using Galileo to determine your location. Newer smartphones are equipped with multi-GNSS chips, which are able to receive signals from most satellites. You can easily check this by downloading the GPSTest app – let it run for a minute or so and you should see a complete list of satellites your phone is receiving signals from.
It’s a bit different when talking about rugged outdoor watches or Garmin’s GPSMap devices. I’m using Garmin as an example here because they are the most popular company for navigation, whether we’re talking about cars or hiking trips. Their devices will usually have the option of enabling either GLONASS or Galileo, but you can only use those in combination with GPS. Which is honestly fine – the only downside to this is that your battery will drain faster, but you are getting faster and more precise location positioning.
Judging strictly by the numbers, Galileo is technically the best and most accurate satellite navigation system that exists. However, it is also the youngest and it’s not even 100% complete yet, so I wouldn’t ditch GPS just yet.
And depending on where you live and what devices you use, you might not even have the option of not using GPS. It is the oldest global navigation satellite system, and most devices will only let you use other systems in combination with GPS – especially in the United States.
The main difference between GPS, GLONASS and Galileo is which country created them. United States, Russia and the European Union all want to have a high-precision positioning system independent of the others, so that they could still offer this service if the one of the other systems fails.
The differences in performances are barely noticeable to the average user, so it really doesn’t matter which exact one you are using. It is only when you start using a combination of two navigation systems that you can see some accuracy improvements. It’s recommended to use GLONASS in mountainous regions and higher latitudes, while Galileo improves accuracy in urban environments.
I hope that answers any questions you had about these three navigation systems. If you think I forgot to explain something or you still have some questions, feel free to let me know in the comment section!
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!