George Zhou has long been a figure in GNSS integration and product development, but he’s best known for founding and growing CHC Navigation from a startup in 2003 to a major global developer and producer of GNSS and geospatial hardware and software.
As a follow-up to our November 2019 recap of our recent visit to CHC Navigation’s HQ, we interview George Zhou.
xyHt: We’d like to know more about you. What is your background in the geospatial profession? Are you a surveyor by training? If not, what is your area of expertise?
George Zhou: My main background is opto-electronics engineering. I was graduated from the College of Optical Science and Engineering, Zhejiang University, with a major in laser technology. In addition, I have been following geospatial-related training at Wuhan University.
xyHt: What did you do prior to starting CHC?
George Zhou: I had my first job in 1991 as an engineer at an optical instrument manufacturer in Beijing. Shortly after, I decided to go to the U.S. and stayed there for a year and a half. This period really impacted my business life and broadened my horizons. I was amazed by the way advanced technologies were developed and the excellence of business management.
Meanwhile, I started to make the link between foreign manufacturers such as Sony, NovAtel, etc. and Chinese companies. In 1999, many new infrastructure projects triggered a growing demand for surveying equipment to complete engineering works. The GPS technology was an obvious answer, and I set up a company to distribute the Trimble brand as offering premium surveying and engineering solutions in China.
xyHt: What inspired you to start CHC?
George Zhou: With the increasing requirement for accurate geospatial data, I found out that even though there is a huge demand for GPS in China, a large portion of users do not have the financial capacity to access this technology due to the high cost involved. There was an untapped market to capture, and after a period of market research and technology assessment, CHC Navigation was founded.
xyHt: What was it like during the first year of starting CHC? What products did you sell?
George Zhou: From the early stage of CHC Navigation, we decided not only to focus on GNSS system integration but also to invest significant resources in software, algorithms, and GNSS core technology. New technologies and products took a couple of years for us to gain a real foothold in the market and expand our sales to a sizable level.
During this foundation period we kept improving our R&D and manufacturing capability. The first tangible result was the introduction in March, 2004, of the first extremely compact L1 GPS receiver especially targeting our surveyors and engineering customers searching for an affordable way to set up control points in complement to their optical equipment.
xyHt: What expectations did you have when you started the company?
George Zhou: When I first visited Intergeo in 2004, very few Chinese visitors were present. At that time, only a handful of manufacturers of surveying accessories or optical manufacturers showcased their products. Intergeo was an excellent platform for us to gradually understand that the demand for high-quality and cost-effective GNSS solutions was global and not limited to developing countries; [this demand is also in] a large number of developed economies. We, therefore, integrated our international development as a key growth factor in 2006 and leveraged our GNSS experience on the engineering and surveying market.
xyHt: What are the market areas where you currently see the most growth, by segment and geographic region?
George Zhou: Our growth started from the traditional engineering and surveying markets. This market segment still represents approximately half of our activities where we have captured significant market shares in China and Asia. We are rapidly expanding in new regions in India, Europe, and Africa through distributors and our CHC Navigation subsidiaries. Our priority remains to provide high-quality GNSS solutions and customer service through a strong market proximity.
CHC Navigation maintains its focus on engineering and surveying but now extends internationally to mobile mapping and marine survey. Indeed, we are confident that our CHCNAV mobile mapping solutions will be able to reach a sizable market share in the near future. Our precision agriculture and machine control are also deemed to achieve a good business level in both domestic and overseas markets.
xyHt: Which developments in navigation satellites do you think have the greatest potential to impact, for instance, the work surveyors do? Simply more satellites, or are new signals (such as B3) providing measurable gains?
George Zhou: The undergoing developments of the GNSS constellations, signals structure, and corrections services are expanding the availability and reliability of survey-grade positioning and navigation. We already see the benefit of such development in markets such as unmanned vehicles and IoT applications in urban and sub-urban areas.
xyHt: CHC is developing its own boards. Do you expect this to expand? What are the advantages of doing your own?
George Zhou: The main purpose of developing our GNSS boards is to increase the competitiveness of CHCNAV integrated solutions and enable us to provide enhanced technologies fitting our customers’ exact needs.
In addition to a high degree of customization of our GNSS core technology, it will also allow us to further control our value chain to provide customers with competitive products and services to further enable the use of GNS-based solutions. A few years ago, I was mentioning the necessary democratization process of GNSS technology; we have now fully entered that stage.
Finally, apart from core GNSS technology, we continue to allocate further engineering resources towards innovation and fundamental research: PVT (position, velocity, time) algorithms, PPP RTK, deformation monitoring, AI implementation, tightly coupled technologies, etc.
xyHt: We know you are a hard-working businessman. What do you like to do for fun?
George Zhou: With the growth of the company, I have unfortunately much less free time. But whenever possible I simply spend time with my family and play with my children. I also like basketball very much. The Los Angeles Lakers were my favorite team when I stayed in the U.S. At CHC Navigation, we often organize basketball games and other team-building group activities that are valued by our employees.
Caption: Sales engineer Liao Kai and assembly captain Liu Chuan Gang work on the CHCNAV inspection line for GNSS rovers.