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What in the World Is the UN Doing About GNSS?

After six years of deliberations and regional workshops, the United Nations has fostered the creation of an International Committee on GNSS to promote the benefits of space-based positioning, navigation, and timing — particularly in developing nations.

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Formation of a United Nations–supported International Committee on GNSS (ICG) has consolidated a six-year process despite some last-minute bumps in the road arising from Russian and Chinese concerns.

At a December 1-2 meeting in Vienna, several dozen UN member states and intergovernmental and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) established the ICG on a voluntary basis “as an informal body for the purpose of promoting cooperation, as appropriate, on matters of mutual interest related to civil satellite-based positioning, navigation, timing, and value-added services,” according to Sergio Camacho, the director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA) who chaired the Vienna meeting.

The group hopes to encourage compatibility and interoperability among the GNSS systems, while increasing their use to support sustainable development, particularly in the developing countries. The ICG could also consider the establishment of user information centers by GNSS providers; for instance, an Internet portal for users of any and all GNSS services.

Russia and the People’s Republic of China, however, decided not to join the new group after raising strong, but apparently somewhat ambiguous objections to the nature of the group. At issue were the terms of reference and membership of the committee. The concerns were expressed by representatives of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs attending the meetings for the first time.

Other participants in the meeting were caught unawares by the resistance, particularly from Russian government representatives. China, a partner in Europe’s Galileo program, reportedly had fewer objections to formation of the ICG.

With an ambitious program for rebuilding its GLONASS system (see “GLONASS: The Once and Future GNSS” in this issue.), the Russians arguably have a lot to gain by participating in a group promoting the benefits of GNSS internationally. To this point, GPS and Galileo have garnered most of the attention at a series of regional workshops sponsored by the UN over the past five years.

Other participants at the meeting agreed to form the ICG and begin development of its work plan as well as set up a working group to address the concerns of the parties that felt they were unable to join at this stage, says Matt Higgins, senior survey advisor for the Australian Department of Natural Resources and Mines, who attended as an representative of FIG, the international surveyors federation.

“The ICG is a group of groups, including system providers and international organizations that represent a good cross-section of large users of GNSS — cartographers, surveyors, navigators,” says Ken Hodgkins, deputy director of the U.S. State Department Office of Space and Advanced Technologies. It will be “an autonomous entity, not officially part of the United Nations, although the UN will play a key role,” he adds. OOSA will have a representative on the ICG.

“The value of the ICG is that it’s directed toward the Third World where there’s a knowledge gap about GNSS and what they can gain from it,” says Mike Shaw, director of the U.S. National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Coordination Office who updated the group on the GPS program.

Hodgkins concurs, “This is a success story in what we can do within OOSA to promote something that we couldn’t have alone. From the U.S. perspective it offers us a mechanism to work with nations on a regional basis that we wouldn’t be able to alone. The UN has the imprimatur to accomplish that.”

An outgrowth of the Third United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space 1999 (UNISPACE III), the ICG reflects the conference’s objective of promoting use of space technologies, particularly among developing nations.

A “Satellite Navigation and Location Systems” background paper expressed the sense of UNISPACE III in its conclusion, “The world community should play an active role in satellite navigation and position services by participating in the development and exploitation of a global system that answers the needs of all civil users. . . . Satellite navigation lends itself by nature to regional and global cooperation. Indeed, a large degree of cooperation is essential if a seamless multimodal satellite-based radio navigation and positioning system is to be achieved throughout the world.”

In June 2001, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) established an Action Team on GNSS cochaired by Hodgkins and Mario Caporale, Director of the Italian Space Agency’s Satellite Navigation Unit. Eventually, 38 member States and 15 intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) joined the GNSS Action Team.

In a parallel activity, a series of UN regional workshops on GNSS held in Malaysia, Austria (both in 2001), Chile, and Zambia (2002) were supported with funding from the U.S. Department of State and the former Interagency GPS Executive Board’s stewardship fund.

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