Technology Explained

GLONASS – The GPS Alternative You Never Knew Existed

Taylor Bolduc 09-01-2015

Did you know there’s more to location services than GPS? There’s another satellite navigation system which you might not have heard of, but you’re probably already using. It’s called GLONASS.


What is GLONASS?


An acronym for Globalnaya Navigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema (Global Navigation Satellite System), GLONASS is a Russian Aerospace Defense Force-operated satellite-based navigation system that is very much like GPS How GPS Works [MakeUseOf Explains] As an avid gamer, I’m surprised by the correlation between GPS-like features in modern video games and the proliferation of GPS technology in mundane life. When I was a kid, paper maps and cartography were... Read More . While GPS came first, created by the United States Army in 1978, GLONASS was intended as an alternative system.

Contemporary uses for GLONASS are the same as GPS, with it being primarily used as a system for vehicle and aviation navigation. Historically, however, it was used in all branches of Russia’s military as a navigation system in high-speed scenarios, such as in jet planes and ballistic missiles.

Development for GLONASS first began in the late 1970s, when the first system was released. It was used mainly for weather positioning, velocity measuring, and timing, and was available throughout the world.  However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, funding was scaled back and it wasn’t fully completed. Paired with the short lifespan (about three years) of the satellites, few people believed in the success of the GLONASS program. It wasn’t until 2001, when Russia’s president Vladimir Putin declared completing it to be a top government priority and massively increased funding did it become regarded as a serious technological institution.

In 2007, Putin issued a Decree of the President of the Russian Federation, opening GLONASS up for unrestricted public use. This was an attempt to garner public and industry interest, and to challenge the homogeny of the American GPS system. By 2010, GLONASS achieved complete coverage of Russia’s territory. One year later, thanks to its orbital satellite constellation, it achieved global coverage.


How Does It Work?

There are three components to GLONASS. The first is the space infrastructure, which consists of the satellite constellation. This is a group of satellites working together in a system. These are usually set up in orbital planes, or paths, around the earth along which they orbit.


These work with ground networks, which augment the accuracy and speed of the satellites by feeding back geodesic information. Ground location networks are ideally spread evenly throughout the world, allowing for even system availability and accuracy. However, with GLONASS, ground location networks are located mostly in Russia, Antarctica, Brazil, and Cuba. Russia has also agreed to open ground stations in China, which would see it become a viable competitor to GPS in one of the fastest growing consumer electronics markets in the world. In addition, GLONASS has been slated to open an additional seven ground stations in 2014. These would all be located outside of Russia.

These triangulate the location of the receiver, the third part. This is any device that is compatible with GLONASS, such as a smartphone or a vehicle navigation system.


Triangulation is done through a series of calculations based upon the contents of the signals sent out by the satellites. These are sent at precise intervals. Any receiver on or near the earth using GLONASS to position itself will use the signals from at least four satellites to estimate position, velocity, and time.

Guy McDowdell explained triangulation (or trilateralization) has been explained in greater detail in his article “How Do Satellites Track Mobile Phones? How Do Satellites Track Mobile Phones? [Technology Explained] Read More “.

GLONASS first used the FDMA (Frequency Division Multiple Access Method) channel access method to communicate with satellites, with 25 channels for 24 satellites. This is a popular protocol used in satellite communications, but has the disadvantage of crosstalk causing interference and disruption.

Since 2008, GLONASS has used CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access Technique GSM Vs. CDMA: What Is the Difference and Which Is Better? You may have heard the terms GSM and CDMA thrown around before in a conversation about cell phones, but what do they really mean? Read More ) in order to allow compatibility with GPS satellites. Because GLONASS receivers are compatible with both FDMA and CDMA, they are both larger and more expensive.


What Makes It Different From GPS?


There are some significant differences between GLONASS and GPS.

For one, GLONASS has fewer satellites in its constellation. GPS has 32 which circle the globe in 6 orbital planes, or paths of orbit. GLONASS has 24 satellites with 3 orbital planes. This means that with GLONASS, more satellites follow the same orbital path. For systems using GLONASS only, it may be more difficult to connect to available satellites. This could potentially lead to reduced positioning accuracy.

The biggest difference between GPS and GLONASS is how they communicate with receivers. With GPS, satellites use the same radio frequencies but have different codes for communication. With GLONASS, satellites have the same codes but use unique frequencies. This allows satellites to communicate with one another despite being in the same orbital plane, whereas this is not as much of a problem with GPS.


But How Accurate Is It?

GLONASS - The GPS Alternative You Never Knew Existed glonass1

GLONASS’s accuracy is comparable to GPS. But this was not always the case. At the beginning of the 21st century, GLONASS was falling into disrepair, and the satellites were approaching the end of their short life spans. The system barely functioned.

As a result, Roscosmos (The Russian Space Agency) set a target for GLONASS to match GPS in terms of accuracy and reliability by 2011.

By the end of 2011, GLONASS had met its goal. It was shown to be accurate in the absolute best environment Trouble Getting a GPS Signal for Your Satnav? Try These Tips Read More (no cloud coverage, tall buildings or radio interference), to 2.8 meters. This made it slightly less accurate than GPS, but perfectly acceptable for most military and commercial use cases.

The accuracy of GLONASS varies depending upon where you are. It’s more accurate in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere due to the higher prevelence of ground stations in these parts.

Is It As Widely Used As GPS?

Although many handset manufacturers include GLONASS chips in their devices, such as Sony, Apple, and HTC, it is nowhere near as common as GPS, which is included in the majority of smartphones and tablets released today.

This is partly due to is being more accurate in Northern latitudes, as it was intended mainly for Russia, compared with GPS which has a more global approach.

The low awareness of GLONASS can also be attributed to it being significantly less mature than GPS andvirtually no GLONASS-exclusive devices being released outside of the former Soviet Union.

How Can I Use It?


Depending on the manufacturer of your smartphone, you may already have a GLONASS chip in your device. iPhones and a significant amount of Android devices use both GLONASS and GPS to ensure optimal accuracy.

If you are stuck in an area with a large amount of cloud coverage, or are surrounded by high-rise buildings, your device will use GLONASS in conjunction with GPS. This allows your device to be pinpointed by any of the fifty-five satellites around the world, increasing overall accuracy. However, GLONASS is typically only turned on when the GPS signal is poor in order to preserve the device’s battery 10 Proven and Tested Tips to Extend Battery Life on Android Suffering from poor battery life on Android? Follow these tips to get more juice out of your Android device's battery. Read More .

A few apps use GLONASS exclusively for location services. NIKA GLONASS (available for free in the Google Play and iTunes App Store) allows you to track in real-time the location of an Android device. It does require an MTS sim card to work, however.

There is also a feature to make your location public, much like Google Latitude How to Trace and Find Your Phone's Location We show you how to trace a phone and find its location from your Android. Note that you can't find a phone location by its number. Read More , but that is only available to Russian users.

There are also a number of hardware devices on the market that use GLONASS.

Garmin GLO is a portable GPS and GLONASS receiver which connects to a mobile device over Bluetooth, and provides better accuracy than any integrated receiver. It is available to purchase on Amazon for $99.

Will You Use It?

On its own, GLONASS doesn’t quite match up to GPS. Its satellites are fewer and far between, and aren’t evenly spread throughout the world. GPS is already advancing GPS III: Where Are We? And Where Are We Going? Fifteen years ago, the first GPS-enabled cellphone went on the market. It flopped, but the form factor it pioneered, combining near-military grade communications equipment with a consumer device has stayed with us. Read More , and GLONASS seems to forever be playing catch up.

However, you’re not realistically going to use it on its own, but when used in conjunction with GPS, it makes all the difference in the world.

Do any of your devices use GLONASS? Have you ever used it exclusively on its own? I would like to hear your experiences, or just your thoughts on this article.

Image Credits: Glosnass-K Satellite Model 1:1 by Patrick G. via Flickr, Comparison of Satellite Navigation Orbits via Wikimedia, GLONASS or GPS Personal Device via Wikimedia, MOSCOW-June 1: Woman driving training simulator at the international exhibition of navigation equipment and software Navitech on June 1, 2011 in Moscow via Shutterstock

Related topics: GPS, Satellite.

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  1. Victor
    September 10, 2018 at 11:45 am

    My current smartphone is able to receive signals of GPS, GLONASS and BeiDou. Very convenient.

  2. Jake
    July 19, 2018 at 11:08 pm

    Glonass started two years before GPS.
    Bourgeois lies i tell you.

  3. Ryan
    March 28, 2018 at 10:19 pm

    Just to correct the author, triangulation is not used to determine position of the receiver. It is actually trilateration. Trilateration is the use of measuring spheres to determine relative location. In this case the "sphere" is the broadcast message sent from the satellite. The time it takes he message to travel from the satellite to the receiver determines the distance from each satellite. The receiver must be using at least 4 satellites for a 3D fix.

  4. Marvis
    November 30, 2017 at 3:53 am

    The more different alternatives we have , the better it is.

  5. pasha
    November 25, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    I had a question about positioning in phone. I'll be happy if answer to my question
    I want the function (or algorithm) of finding the Longitude, latitude and altitude of a location in smartphone when using four positioning systems (GPS , GLONASS, BeiDou, Galileo) in java or android programming.
    In other words, how the geographical location is extracted in phones by receiving signals from four positioning systems (GPS , GLONASS, BeiDou, Galileo)? What is that function? Can you help me with sending this algorithm?
    Thanks in advance for your help

  6. bridget
    October 20, 2016 at 3:18 am

    Which smartphones support offline use of GPS, GLONASS, etc.? When we're in the mountains, I can only use direct satellite navigation, since there are no cellular networks available.

    So far I'm keeping my Nokia N8 working since my iPhone didn't work without a network, especially for dirt roads. Hope Nokia's new Android phones will have offline satellite navigation!

    [For Apple users, "offline" is what everybody used to call "airplane mode" until they renamed it. "Offline" makes more sense, since most cell phone users don't travel by airplane]

  7. John Mullen
    July 1, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    DHS and other grouos are calling for redundant location tracking architectures in critical infrastructure protection networks. We are investigating different alternatives and designing both sinultaneous and fail over redundant solutions and GLONASS is a candidate. Thank you very much for the well informed article. John Mullen CEO Promia

  8. shadab
    April 11, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    what is a GLONASS SOFTWARE and how can one purchase this ?

  9. Taylor
    January 10, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    Oh, that's a great list, thanks!

  10. Doc
    January 10, 2015 at 4:21 am

    "...and to challenge the homogeny of the American GPS system...." Homogeny is resemblance between organs or tissue systems; perhaps you meant "hegemony," the dominance of GPS over other similar systems?

    • gunnar
      December 12, 2015 at 6:10 pm

      dominance better than homogeny

  11. Achraf Almouloudi
    January 10, 2015 at 1:37 am

    Why the world wouldn't come up together and use a standard in something? Do we really need every industrialized country starting its own satellite positioning system? I think GPS perfectly does its job for most people in the world, so why Russia, China and India are developing similar systems? Stupid morons.

    • Rajib Ghosh
      January 10, 2015 at 3:52 am

      Mostly because GPS is perceived as being under US control.

    • Roman
      January 10, 2015 at 5:46 am

      In Russia GPS is used in most civil devices. In specialized devices GLONASS is used to improve the accuracy of the signal. One standard has never been a good solution, otherwise all used Windows and IE.

    • Farzi Shah
      January 10, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      Because in hostile conditions we don't wanna beg in front of US like you morons

    • Jetserf
      January 11, 2015 at 2:03 am

      GPS was intended primarily for military use. It was funded during the cold war by the US in response to Soviet nuclear proliferation. Having GPS meant that US missiles, most importantly sub-launched ballistic missiles, could get an accurate initial launch position. This increased accuracy. The original name for GPS as it is today was DNSS, Defense Navigation Satellite System. Then Navstar, then Navstar-GPS, then GPS.

      After the USSR shot down Korean Airlines 007 in the early 80s, President Ronald Reagan made the system available for civilian use. GPS used to have a military/precision signal and a degraded signal for civilian use. It's now all the same signal but the US DoD can degrade it as necessary.

      And Farzi Shah, the original cost of the US GPS is about $5 billion dollars. Thats with a B and the pinky finger to the corner of the mouth like Dr. Evil. Any country can degrade their own GNSS if they wish.

      theironhide I think China has two systems. Beidou is a regional system and COMPASS is intended to be global.
      Japan is also building a regional system called QZSS.

  12. Christian Cawley
    January 9, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Excellent read, had no idea about the continued use of GLONASS.

    • Taylor
      January 10, 2015 at 8:17 pm

      Thanks Christian! We can only hope that Russia doesn't end up ruining GLONASS by defunding it or something else.

  13. theironhide
    January 9, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    AFAIK, the one owned by Chine is called COMPASS.
    Even, India is developing it's own Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), and it should be operational in a year or two!

  14. Fik of borg
    January 9, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    The orbit infographic made me realize how easy and natural is to write "Mm" for "megameters" in contrast with how ridiculous it would look to write "Kilo miles" or "Kmi", forcing the author of the infographic to write zeros on every imperial length unit (I don't know why they didn't do the same with speeds, instead using "xx000 Km/h" instead of "xx Mm/h" or even "xx Km/s").

    How much longer must we put up with ilogical units, US/UK? Tradition? If it is so, why not furlongs or leagues?

    • Taylor
      January 10, 2015 at 8:15 pm

      Well you know they have to feel special ;)

      Really though, I do agree. But good luck implementing that. I live in the US and people would riot if we switched to Metric.

    • matt
      February 8, 2015 at 3:31 pm

      I think the biggest problem with switching to metric in the US is the visualization of units. Lets say something is 25 kg. How much is that? Can I lift that?

      The board is 4 meters long...will that fit in my car? 140 centimeters, is that a normal countertop height? 50 liters of gas is that a big gas tank? $1.25 liter for gas, is that expensive?

      The store is 20 km away... can I make it there in 15 minutes?

      20 deg Celsius, do I need a jacket?

      Everyone would have to do complicated conversion to get an idea of how much/far/hot..etc which eliminates the easy part which is conversion.

  15. ReadandShare
    January 9, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    There are now four "GPS" systems available: GPS (US), Glonass (Russia), Beidou (China) and Galileo (Europe). The latter two are still just regional, although both China and Europe are continually expanding to eventual worldwide coverage.

    • Farzi Shah
      January 10, 2015 at 1:18 pm

      Bro one more IRNSS - Indians!

    • Taylor
      January 10, 2015 at 8:12 pm

      Honestly I'm really looking forward to seeing Galileo in action. That's going to be a really great piece of technology.

    • Ed
      March 18, 2015 at 8:25 pm

      THANK YOU!! So well written is your article that I need not check another source to get info on GLONASS. I did not know that was before.