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[Herald Interview] LIG Nex1 to develop Korea’s own satellite navigation system

With centimeter-level precision, Korean Positioning System to bring software independence in space, executive says

Sept. 26, 2021 - 13:42 By Kim Byung-wook
Jung Byung-gi, vice president and head of command, control, communication and intelligence business at LIG Nex1 explains the firm’s satellite navigation ambitions in an interview with The Korea Herald at the company’s research and development center in Pangyo, Gyeonggi Province. (LIG Nex1)

This is the last installment in a series of interviews with executives of Korean companies with space ambitions. -- Ed.

Every single one of South Korea’s 51 million inhabitants relies in some way on the Global Positioning System, the navigation system provided by a constellation of 31 satellites owned by the US.

Since 1983, the US has offered its GPS service for free. Now, satellite navigation has seeped into every field of industry, from car navigation to logistics, and many aspects of daily life would be unimaginably different without it.

But “free” is a dangerous word. It can be downgraded or discontinued by the operator at any time. And even if the service goes off the grid, there’s nothing Korea can do about it.

This is why the country has set out to develop the Korean Positioning System, a local version of GPS, with a 3.7 trillion won ($3.1 billion) budget.

In an interview with The Korea Herald, Jung Byung-gi, a vice president of LIG Nex1, the domestic aerospace and defense firm which is to lead the project, said that the envisioned KPS would complete the nation’s space independence, coupled with the planned launch of the country’s first domestically developed rocket next month.

“Korea’s domestically made Nuri rocket, which will be launched on Oct. 21, will bring the country’s space independence in hardware. The software independence, on the other hand, will come from the KPS,” said Jung, who is the head of command, control, communication and intelligence business at LIG Nex1.

The KPS project, having cleared the feasibility study last June, is to kick off next year. With seven to eight satellites in orbit by 2035, and the first launch planned for 2027, it will provide an independent satellite navigation service around the clock covering areas within 1,000 kilometers from Seoul, the capital of Korea.

If successful, the country will join the US, Russia, Europe, China, India and Japan that have their own satellite networks for high-precision positioning, navigation and timing.

According to the LIG Nex1 executive, having a reliable, sovereign satellite navigation system will help bring the “fourth industrial revolution” in Korea, from flying taxis to self-driving cars.

“The free GPS service can be out by as much as 10 to 11 meters, so Korean companies have to compensate for the accuracy with algorithms. But the KPS, which will also be free, will provide a centimeter-level accuracy and become a vital part of the nation’s infrastructure,” Jung said.

Flying taxis in Korea, scheduled go fully autonomous starting 2035, are expected to be one of the beneficiaries of the KPS. When autonomous flying taxis are in the air, they communicate with each other to prevent collision, but ultimately require the assistance of precise satellite navigation as well, which the current free GPS service can’t offer.

Establishing the KPS is not an easy task, as signals from satellites floating 36,000 kilometers away in space must arrive to Earth intact, through all the interruptions by the clouds and rain.

According to Jung, LIG Nex1’s years of experience in manufacturing guided missiles contributed to the firm’s development of the KPS. LIG Nex1 also developed Korea’s first auto GPS navigation system in April 1997.

The KPS is not designed to be a rival to GPS. Rather it will be a compatible and supplementary network that enhances the accuracy of GPS around Korea. Presidents Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden during their May summit said the two countries would cooperate on this.

“The KPS will be linked with the GPS. This way, the US can increase the accuracy of the GPS around the Korean Peninsula for free. It’s a win-win for both countries,” Jung said.

To access KPS, companies in Korea will have to purchase necessary equipment from LIG Nex1 such as receivers. The firm’s ultimate goal is to provide total solutions to industries that require exact information on time, location and navigation such as the financial sector, where transactions must be synchronized from both ends.

The KPS is expected to create 60,000 jobs and added value of more than 7 trillion won, according to the company.

Jung offered his candid thoughts on Korea’s space programs, which are still led by the government.

“When the government launches a space project, they sign research and development agreements with private companies, not contracts.”

Because they are R&D agreements, the government can partner with local institutions, without going through an open bidding process which could invite global space companies. But that also worked as a hindrance to the development of the private space industry here, as players have to shoulder uncertainties from participating in such projects, he said.

“Considering that space programs are for establishing nation’s infrastructure, there must be some exceptions,” Jung said.