Japan's Softbank Launching a Satellite Navigation Service for Autonomous Vehicles

Japan's Softbank Launching a Satellite Navigation Service for Autonomous Vehicles

Author: Eric Walz   

Japan's Softbank is no stranger to companies working on autonomous driving technology. Softbank is Uber's biggest investor and owns about 15% of the the ride-hailing giant that is now worth billions after Uber went public last month.

Softbank is now looking to the sky and plans to use orbiting satellites to help autonomous vehicles find their position and safely navigate.

Reuter's reported on Monday that Japan's SoftBank Corp is planning to launch a service later this year that would use satellite navigation data combined with mobile base stations to help self-driving buses, drones and autonomous farm machinery navigate.

The service will begin with trials in Japan next month before expanding nationwide in November. The satellites can provide centimeter-level positioning to the autonomous technology that is beginning to be deployed across a range of industries, SoftBank said.

The first Michibiki satellite was launched in September 2010, followed by three more in subsequent years.

Since launching all four of them, Japan's constellation Michibiki satellites has been offering high-precision location data since last November. SoftBank's service will be the first attempt at building a viable commercial business with it.

Japan's Improved Version of GPS

The Michibiki satellites are billed as Japan's version of the Global Positioning System (GPS). The satellites transmit radio waves toward the ground to supply accurate positioning data.

The satellites fly in what is known as a "quasi-zenith orbit" above Japan and their radio waves can be received even in mountainous areas or between tall buildings in cities. Autonomous cars using current GPS face additional challenges in cities by losing their signal around tall buildings, something that the Michibiki satellite technology minimizes.

Kajima Corp, one of Japan's big four construction firms, will also trial a service using drones to monitor construction sites. SoftBank's own SB Drive, which is developing self-driving technology for commercial buses, will also run trials to test the satellites' ability to provide precise location data.

In addition to launching a service employing satellites, SoftBank is working with automaker Toyota and Honda with Monet Technologies, a self-driving car collaborative venture. Monet aims to become a ride-hailing service to rival Uber, Didi Chuxing and Lyft.

Softbank's Growing Portfolio

SoftBank's parent SoftBank Group's diverse portfolio of companies control around 90% of the world's ride-hailing industry with its stake in Uber and other investments. Softbank is also a major investor in GM Cruise, the self-driving arm of General Motors based in San Francisco.

In May 2018, GM Cruise received a $2.25 billion investment from SoftBank's Vision Fund, beginning with with the first tranche of $900 million made at the closing of the transaction. Once Cruise's autonomous vehicles are ready for commercial deployment, SoftBank will complete the second investment of $1.35 billion, the two companies said last year.

Despite the disappointment with the speed of development and launch of self-driving cars, which has yet to fulfill earlier promises of have commercial autonomous cars on public roads by 2019, billions of dollars continues to pour into the sector, with much of it coming from Softbank.

In March, internet satellite start-up OneWeb announced it raised $1.25 billion in additional funding, bringing total fundraising since 2012 to $3.4 billion. OneWeb's latest funding round was also led by SoftBank.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. Eric has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology. Outside of work, Eric likes to travel to new places, play guitar, and explore the outdoors.
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