GLONASS: The GPS Alternative You Never Knew Existed

Know About GLONASS, the only satellite navigation system other than GPS with global coverage.


GLONASS stands for “Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema“, or Global Navigation Satellite System. GLONASS is Russia’s version of GPS. It is currently the only system which provides Global coverage and competition to GPS.

History Of GLONASS

Development of GLONASS was started in the mid-1970s by ROSCOSMOS (Russian Federal Space Agency) in the Former USSR. Due to high development cost, its progress was halted after the collapse of USSR in 1991. Recently in the first decade of 21st century GLONASS was again revived and made fully operational with Global Coverage.

GLONASS-K Satellite (2011)

Generations of Glonass

  • GLONASS 1 – made operational in the early 1980s, this first generation satellite was intended for meteorological research and time calculation using an atomic clock (the most accurate timekeeping device we ever know). It was primarily for Military use, especially in Smart Bombs and Guided Missiles.
  • GLONASS- M & K – These second generation Glonass satellite, opened the use of Glonass for Civilian use for Land, Air and Sea Navigation system.
  • GLONASS – K2 & KM – These are the third generation satellites currently under R&D Phase, and are expected of to be operational by 2020s.

How Does GLONASS Works?

The Constellation of GLONASS Consists of 24 satellites which constantly emits Radio Signal at a particular frequency towards Earth in a circular area. These 24 GLONASS Satellites strategically orbits around the Earth in such a way, that every area on earth always receives the signal from 3 GLONASS Satellites. The GLONASS Receivers catches the unique frequency of GLONASS satellites, as we know each satellite emits the radio signal in a circular area. So to pinpoint the accuracy, the GLONASS receivers just figure out where the three circular signal area from three satellites intersect, that is usually your 2-D location. If your receiver gets hooked onto  4th satellite somehow, you also get to know your altitude.

Take a look at this video to get a better idea of how actually Satellite Navigation systems Works. While this video explains how GPS works, But hey, Both have same working procedures.

Using GLONASS Navigation on Mobile Phones

Wait, your phone doesn’t have an atomic clock, on the above video we have seen that a time lag of nanoseconds will have an astronomical inaccuracy on your location on the map. This is where A-GLONASS Comes in. It is very similar to GLONASS receivers but A-GLONASS brings more features for smartphones. It brings features such as turn by turn navigation, live traffic data and more. It uses the mobile network of your smartphone lock your location quickly with the help of your Mobile Internet.


GLONASS and GPS are two big guys of navigation systems and they were made in the same period, so it’s obvious they have so many things in common, like the basic working procedure, availability for Civilian use on Mobile device and navigation systems. But also differences too, mainly because of Russian ethos hardware-based design philosophy which is rarely seen in the western world.

Firstly is the country of origin and number of operational satellites. GLONASS is made in Russia and operated by ROSCOSMOS (which is a Space Agency), while US-made GPS is operated by United States Air Force (Which is a Military Wing).

GPS has a substantially higher number of operational satellites, its constellation of 31 satellites has coverage on any parts of the world. While GLONASS has just 24 Satellites, which makes up some blind spots in southern oceans. But GLONASS fills this gap with its slightly higher accuracy than GPS.

In this image, you can see the Orbital heights of GPS and GLONASS Constellation.

GLONASS (left) , GPS (right)

GPS vs GLONASS – Technical Specifications

Specification GLONASS GPS
Owner Russian Federation United States
Number of
At-least 24 31
Orbital Height 21150 Km 19130 km
Accuracy Position: 5–10 m Position: 3.5-7.8 m
Orbital plane inclination 64.8 degrees 55 degree
Orbital period 11 hours and 16 minutes 11 hours and 58 minutes
Frequency Around 1.602 GHz (SP)
Around 1.246 GHz (SP)
1.57542 GHz (L1 signal)
1.2276 GHz (L2 signal)
Status Operational Operational

Is GLONASS Better than GPS?

With both systems working on almost same procedures, so there is no significant advantage they have over each other. As we discussed earlier, due to less number of satellites GLONASS has some coverage issues in Southern Hemisphere. While GPS has some coverage issues and blind spots in Cities with High Skyscrapers (apparently blocks the GPS Signal).

GLONASS does have some slight accuracy edge over GPS with 2metres of accuracy (10 meters for GPS). Using GPS + GLONASS allows you to be pinpointed with an unmatched accuracy since now you are accessing  55 satellites all across the globe. So when you are in a place where GPS signals are obscured like between huge skyscrapers or tunnels, you will be tracked by GLONASS satellites accurately.

GLONASS in Commercial Use

Similar to GPS, GLONASS has also started to be operational on commercial devices like Navigational system for commercial use. But since its a late bloomer, there is significantly less use of GLONASS. Running on low funds, the Russian space agency is trying hard to promote GLONASS on a commercial scale.

GLONASS car navigation kit
Glospace SGK-70 Kit

All the high-end navigational devices like products from GARMIN include GLONASS + GPS receivers on their chipsets to use location-based services more accurately.

GLONASS and SmartphonesGLONASS

Despite GLONASS Being a late bloomer, GLONASS was used in many high-end mobiles phones, most notably iPhone 4S, it was world’s first mobile phone to use GPS+GLONASS for greater accuracy in location-based services. But still, today’s smartphone navigation is dominated by GPS. Almost all smartphone is equipped with A-GPS (assisted Global Positional System) chip. Now with GLONASS made available for civilian use, more and more smartphones are being launched with GPS+GLONASS technology to use dual-band location service for a better accuracy.


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