Date: 30 June 2014
Place: Satellite Launch Centre, Sriharikota
Just a month into office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had travelled to the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) facility to witness the launch of the PSLV-C23 satellite. In his speech after the successful launch, Modi praised the ISRO scientists for their stellar work and then stunned them into momentary silence by posing a challenge. “Today, I ask our Space community, to take up the challenge, of developing a SAARC Satellite – that we can dedicate to our neighbourhood, as a gift from India. A satellite, that provides a full range of applications and services, to all our neighbours. I also ask you, to enlarge the footprint of our satellite-based navigation system, to cover all of South Asia.”
Initially, the assembled scientists did not know what to say. “We had never done such a thing,” remembers an old ISRO hand. Modi reinforced this idea five months later, speaking in Kathmandu at the SAARC Summit on November 26. He said, “India’s gift of a satellite for the SAARC region will benefit us all in areas like education, telemedicine, disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting and communication.”
In less than three years after the Prime Minister challenged the ISRO scientists, they came up with the answer. On 5 May 2017, the SAARC Satellite’ was launched from Sriharikota, opening a new chapter in space diplomacy.
The 2,230 kgGSAT-9 is a Geostationary Communication Satellite. Communication services from it will be shared with five neighbours (Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives). It will help to meet the growing telecommunications and broadcasting needs of the region. All participating nations will have access to at least one transponder using which they can telecast their own programming. The countries will develop their own ground-level infrastructure. The satellite is expected to provide communication channels between countries for better disaster management. Afghanistan is also expected to join the group soon. As a scientist in ISRO says, “For smaller countries, this is a dream come true. To lease a transponder, a lot of money has to be spent. But here India has gifted them a permanent asset.” Apart from the obvious use (telecommunication, broadcasting), leaders of these six countries can have secure dedicated one-on-one communication through the VSAT facility that the satellite provides, explained ISRO officials. The leaders can also have a video conference between themselves if they so wished, thanks to the South Asia satellite.
In a way, by dedicating a separate satellite for the neighbourhood, Modi has taken his favourite theme of SabkaSaath, SabkaVikas, beyond India’s own physical boundaries. An early example of helping neighbours through satellites came in Nepal. In August 2014, a massive landslide blocked Sun Koshi river in Northern Nepal indicating the possible formation of a lake. This created flood threat for several villages downstream in Bihar.
ISRO immediately swung into action, acquired the images and in consultation with India’s National Disaster Relief Agency (NDMA) could get to exact location of landslide, compute the extent of debris due to landslide and could come up with a solution for controlled release of blocked water slowly, averting possible flash floods in Bihar. This operation was made possible because ISRO now coordinates closely with Inter-Ministerial Group for Emergency management at the Centre. IMEG helped coordinate the relief operation in Nepal and later in September 2014 in Srinagar too.
But that’s not all.
As ISRO Chairman K. Kiran Kumar sees it,“While ISRO has always been a pace-setter in space application Prime Minister Modi and NSA Ajit Doval have spurred us into taking our technology a step higher.” He cites the example of ‘Island mapping’ programme launched in 2015.
Apparently in one of the meetings in the PMO sometime in June 2015 Modi asked the number of islands India possesses. As officials from MHA scrambled to get the exact figures from Survey of India, some officials in the PMO itself tried to add up the number by getting the figures from state governments and from the census records. But the figures varied widely. It was clear that the records were old and not updated in years.
That’s when NSA Doval turned to ISRO. He asked ISRO chairman Kiran Kumar if the space agency could help in determining the exact number of islands. Kiran Kumar was quick to say yes. Remembers PG Diwakar, currently Scientific Secretary to the ISRO Chairman: “I was then in-charge of Remote Sensing Applications at NRSC. The Chairman asked me to devise a quick method to map the islands around India’s vast coastline.” He got down to work immediately with a hand-picked team. “We were asked to not just determine the numbers but also look at their exact status, distribution and area (of the islands). We were particularly told to recheck the status of the islands that were on the Survey of India list from the British days. The fear was that some of them would have gone underwater while some others would have sprung up,” Diwakar recalls.
The unspoken apprehension behind the exercise was the possibility of some remote, uninhibited island in Andaman-Nicobar territory or around Lakshadweep or even in the Sundarbans being illegally occupied!!. Security agencies were aware of how arms smugglers had used a remote island in Andaman in 1998 to land a large consignment of arms meant for Burmese rebels and tried to transport it across the Bay of Bengal to be delivered in Myanmar. The agencies had foiled the consignment in well-coordinated plan under Operation Leech in February 1998. Nearly twenty years later, the likelihood of an uninhibited island being occupied by forces aligned to India’s adversaries has increased manifold. The exercise thus had strategic implications too.
Once the number was determined, the ISRO team developed an Island Information System that has 34 attributes (give details). The Prime Minister was briefed about the system in October 2016. Since then, the NITI Aayog, state governments and other ministries have started to draw up development plans for 10 selected islands, five each in Andaman and Lakshadweep.
At the same time, ISRO satellites are keeping a continuous watch on these island territories. A software that updates any noticeable changes on these islands has since been developed too. So as Diwakar and his team drew up the latest data base on islands, they came up with new discoveries. “Says Diwakar: “This work became very popular because we built this information system within a few months and were able to demonstrate this to MHAand other Ministries that were involved in the exercise. The Home Ministry had then called in many other ministries who are relevant in this exercise and also needed this data. For example, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard, the Census people, Environment & Forests and the Survey of India officers, all came on board. What we did is we brought on a common platform, an information system which can be used by multiple ministries.” For example, an IG of Police from Gujarat told ISRO scientists that his force is now able to monitor vulnerable islands close to the maritime boundary with Pakistan much more closely and take counter measures accordingly.
The Island Information System apart, ISRO has successfully launched CARTOSAT 2 Series of satellites that can provide sub-meter images (spatial resolution of 65 cm) for monitoring purposes. ISRO is also building on capabilities to acquire images from as far as 36,000 km up in the space and yet give a resolution of about 55 m, at frequent intervals, empowering Indian security agencies like the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) and other intelligence arms to monitor real time activities of India’s adversaries. Such a capability would also help in effective monitoring of major national disasters in the country.
The Special Projects Division dealing with all strategic requirements of the armed forces and intelligence agencies has been reinvigorated. A senior scientist in charge of the Division works in close coordination with the Deputy National Security Adviser to meet all requirements in quickest time possible. So, for instance, while new and powerful ISRO satellites are continuously monitoring India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood as a matter of routine, a specific request like the one to hover over areas in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) in the wake of the Uri attack in September 2016 was handled by the Special Projects Division. For a week in the run up to the surgical strikes in late September that year, ISRO kept a close and specific watch on terrorist camps and movement of Pakistani army troops. When Indian Special Forces crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and struck several locations inside PoK, real time surveillance was mounted by ISRO both to capture the assault and to monitor any threatening movement against the Indian Special Forces teams.
In June and July 2017, at the height of a tense standoff between India and China in Chumbi Valley just north of the Siliguri corridor, connecting rest of India with the north eastern states, ISRO was tasked with monitoring Chinese military activity in Tibet to determine if there was any unusual movement of troops, tanks or aircraft. Besides, ISRO now provides real time support to Indian Navy and Coast Guard to keep a close watch on the long coastline as well as the vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that India has. Movement of Chinese survey ships, submarines and warships in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal besides the Pakistani Navy’s forays into Arabian Sea, in conjunction with the Navy, is now one of the important tasks of ISRO following the new coordination mechanism established in 2015.
ISRO has in fact been continuously launching a series of satellites, mainly for cartography purpose. Called the Cartosat series, these satellites are mainly used for cartographic mapping the earth. So they are useful for dual purposes—military as well as civil. Through the Cartosat 2 series of satellites programme for instance, ISRO is helping derive1x4000 scale maps for better urban planning. As Kiran Kumar says, “the beauty of this technology is that it is continuously available. One can take an image today, one can take an image again, 15 days later, compare and monitor the progress of a project, a building or whatever else. With two-time data, say between 2007 and 2017, we can calculate the difference in height of a given building through stereo imaging and three-dimensional mapping and calculations to establish building heights, Mining related works or even new constructions.”
K Kasturirangan, former chairman of ISRO, says “The space agency has a formidable suit of technologies and all are suitably deployed with each user agency utilising the assets to their best advantage.”
So while high resolution imaging satellite can help in urban planning it can also monitor terrorist camps across the border. Kasturirangan says a satellite image does not distinguish between friend and foe that interpretation rests with the users. Kiran Kumar says, “The Indian space agency will not be found lacking in helping secure India’s national interests now and in future.”
Speaking about the capabilities of this ultra-sharp satellite, Kumar said “The Cartosat 2 series has a unique capability of capturing a 1-minute video, which despite its enormous speed of 37 km a second, is able to focus at a single point for a minute.”
In addition, there were three other earth imaging satellites Cartosat-1, Cartosat-2 and Resourcesat-2 that provide top class imagery during day time. Going further, ISRO seeks to develop satellites that have a resolution of 25 cm in the very near future.
Former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair says even China does not have such high resolution satellites, the best China has is about 5-m resolution.
Nair says “India invested heavily in space imaging technology and is now reaping the benefits.” Nair says right now India relies heavily on using Thuraya handsets for satellite telephony but he hopes very soon the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will be able to deliver Indian handsets that are compatible with the country’s GSAT-6 satellite.
In fact Nair insists that in the upcoming GSAT 6-A, satellite telephony should be made the bigger component.
While understandably much of the resources are focused on land since India has hostile neighbours both on its western and eastern fronts. ISRO has not forgotten the deep blue oceans that surround India and they need to be protected as well. On a specific demand by the Indian Navy, the Indian space scientists have already deployed a satellite the Navy calls ‘Rukmini’. This is a dedicated communications satellite which helps the Indian Navy talk to its ships when they are beyond the visual range, in a secure fashion.
As a senior security manager summed it up: “Now ISRO has got strategically aligned to India’s security requirements, thanks to the Eye-in-the-Sky. Earlier, it was largely technologically focused.”
Another feather in ISRO’s cap is the Indian National Regional Navigational System, meant for creating India’s own GPS facility. Having put up a constellation of seven satellites which covers India and the neighbourhood—up to 1500 km to the east and west of India’s shores—ISRO has created a powerful system which is used for several important tasks including creating India’s own GPS system. This constellation of seven satellites was named as “NavIC” (Navigation Indian Constellation) by Prime Minister Modi and dedicated to the Nation on the occasion of successful launch of IRNSS-1G, the seventh and last satellite of NavIC. Navic in Sanskrit is incidentally, a sailor.
All the satellites will be visible at all times in the Indian region. While the first of the series of satellites was launched in July 2013, the rest six were put into space between 2014 and 2016.ISRO spent Rs. 1,420 crores on building and setting up the seven NavIC satellites in the orbit. Regarded as a precise system, comparable to US’s GPS, NavIC is capable of providing position accuracy of about 10 metres. India has thus become one among a handful of countries, to have its own GPS. IRNSS Or NavIC will provide two types of services, namely, Standard Positioning Service (SPS) which is provided to all the users and Restricted Service (RS), which is an encrypted service provided only to the authorised users. The indigenous system is already up and providing services that is being tested and used a few applications already. Says an ISRO official: “From 2018, we need not depend on US GPS at all.”It’s a major strategic advantage.
Based on the Indian GPS system, ISRO has tied up with Indian companies—under Make in India projects–for manufacture of a chip set. Once the chips are produced, they can be used for variety of purposes, from defence to simple road navigation in the civilian sector. Several trials have taken place of late. NavIChas started supporting the fisherman in coastal areas. Says Kiran Kumar, “the first application (of NavIC) which we have devised is given through a mobile App, a basic mobile. Once installed and linked to the NavIC Device, a fisherman in say Gujarat or in Tamil Nadu will get important services, like 1. Potential Fishing Zones (PFZ) information for him to navigate to that point for fishing, 2. Weather alert, like thunders storms, 3An automatic alert if his boat approaches international maritime boundary. Otherwise, on high seas, it is difficult to make out where the Indian area ends and other country’s begins.” Given the frequency of arrests of Indian fishermen in Pakistani or Sri Lankan waters, NavIC must come as a big relief to the fishermen community.
ISRO has already developed necessary Apps on Mobile that will allow fishermen to download potential fishing zones in the area before they launch the boat into the sea. Explains Diwakar: “Here, what we do is we use the sea surface temperature and chlorophyll information, which comes from the satellite data, Oceansat-2 is used here, both these are integrated to determine an area which would have a school of fish, that around this lat-long, the fishermen need not waste time in searching for fish as he can follow the PFZ maps and reach the right place for assured fish-catch.” This is in fact the first application based on NavIC, which is already in field-trial phase.
Once tested and tried, the chipset may even become integral part of every mobile handset in India to provide accurate GPS to everyone, ISRO scientists now say. There will be multiple applications that NavIC can be used for.
However, ISRO’s mandate goes much beyond just helping India’s strategic sector. Chairman Kiran Kumar says the scope and work of ISRO has expanded manifold since the Modi government has taken charge in 2014. In fact, the Chairman of ISRO says under this government, the number of ministries using ISRO data has gone up manifold. “From about 10-12 ministries in the past, we now have 58 ministries, including the tribal welfare ministry (which one wouldn’t have thought would have any use of our data) have a dedicated link to our data. That’s a huge difference.”
For example the Smart Cities & AMRUT projects that the government has launched. ISRO provides 65 cm data, 1×4000 scale maps, to urban planners for consistent and continuous planning and monitoring. ISRO’s technology now gives a three-dimension imagery allowing urban planners to record progress of a construction site. Project managers can now map the progress of various construction activities by comparing earlier images with the latest ones at a central place, on a dashboard. ISRO’s ability to map potential ground water zones, provide acreage and production of major crops well before harvest, monitor encroachments in forest in addition to mapping and monitoring forest reserves, assess quality of land (whether it is fallow, a wasteland or fertile), gives a handy tool to town planners. They can now plan to make optimum utilisation of water, electricity, energy since the entire three dimensional view of the proposed town or a city in progress is available. Once a new city comes up, many of its basic civic functions can be controlled, managed and utilised through a central system, thanks to ISRO’s technology.
Says Diwakar, “If I am a town planner, I would like to optimally utilize resources in a cost effective manner, let us say, the water, electricity and sewerage systems. I wouldn’t like to waste the precious water. So you can completely control through ICT technologies on how you’re going to distribute the water in a city. Through the computerised mechanism you release the water to a particular area for a particular time, you auto shut-off and close it since you know the amount of water the population is going to consume. ISRO scientists say their technology gives an integrated perspective and the ability to modify outcomes as and when required. For instance, they can effectively do traffic management by using ICT because the control room has the full picture and ability to monitor the amount of load on a given road and identify choke points during different hours. Near real-time monitoring and making real-time projections helps in better urban management. And at nights the control room can even manage street lighting and control energy consumption of a particular area based on traffic and use of public places. The control room manager can switch on /switch off or even reduce the illumination for a certain area if there’s no traffic, say after 12 midnight. In short, the Central control room concept in a smart city can literally manage and monitor all the basic amenities and facilities which are used by common citizens daily. Yet another possibility of using “Internet of Things (IOT”, intermixed with space technology helps in better management of smart cities. The capital of Chattisgarh—Naya Raipur—that is moving towards smart city program is one of the unique examples of marrying urban planning with space technology, ISRO scientist point out.
AMRUT or Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation is another example where urban bodies (municipal corporations, city councils) will be able to use geospatial technology for planning. For example, urban planners can get the full picture at the click of a mouse about the drainage situation, existing pipelines, allow them to check if space exists for new pipelines to be laid etc. The authorities can also take a comprehensive look at the green cover available in an urban setting thanks to the ISRO eye in the sky and decide accordingly which areas to leave out for construction, which to allot in case the land is found to be fallow or is a wasteland with no hope of being used for agriculture purposes.
So wasn’t this being done earlier, I ask the ISRO scientists. “Not at this level or with so much of coordination,” said one of them in reply. Normally, it used to take four to five years for town planners to finalise the city plans or even update them but now, working in close coordination with Ministry of Urban Development the process is much faster than before. The Ministry has modified the entire documentation with respect to town planning, they have evolved new guidelines that uses space and geospatial technology, so now the entire urban planning starts with a geospatial base map, the base map given by the high resolution satellite pictures. The satellite pictures combined with the existing maps gives full information on elevation, type of land–waste land or a productive land—to enable faster planning. At the moment, about 500 AMRUT towns and cities have been taken up and sought ISRO’s help. Having tasted success, the authorities now want to use the technology for all 4,041 cities in the future.
Explains Diwakar: “This is a procedure we’ve put together. A client server system has been designed to be used by the MoUD. All the services will be ‘e’ enabled services. All of them—water and waste management, traffic system, electricity grids, housing numbers– can be brought under one roof and monitored in a dashboard. We are for example working with Naya Raipur to make it one of the first modern smart cities in the country. The model should be amenable to be emulated throughout the country.”
Planning smart cities apart, ISRO is contributing in mounting surveillance on gas pipelines, geo-tagging all the post offices in the country, helping tourism departments to come up with a real-time information monitoring system and collecting data for municipal corporations. The information of all 1.55 lakh post offices in the country—including their location, status of road connectivity to each one of them and even the services provided by them—is now available at one place, that is Bhuvan Geoportal. Moreover the 3Dimensional imaging capability that ISRO now has enables municipal authorities to monitor and compare data on building heights. For example, simply looking at a residential building’s 3D image from 2010 and 2017—for instance—the civic authorities can calculate the number of stories added to a building and accordingly come up with an estimate house tax they can collect.
Similarly, for agriculture sector, satellite imagery was used earlier too but over the past three years, the use of ISRO satellites has gone up manifold. Says a scientist: “Our technology now enables the agriculture department to estimate grain production much before the harvest. Earlier we used monitor about eight crops, now the count has gone up to 11 and also helping the ministry with Soil Health Card program in country in addition to the Crop Insurance scheme to help the farming community. Moreover, we have also included horticulture in this monitoring. The most important change however is the use of ISRO technology to assess damage to crops in drought hit areas or places that get excessive rains or flooding. This way the government’s crop insurance programme gets implemented in double quick time. We are actually able to provide almost real time data to enable the agriculture department in assessing the need for crop insurance.”
Even the water resources ministry uses space technology much more than before. Thanks to the new synergy, the Ministry now gets the water spread information in all water bodies and reservoirs on a bi-weekly basis through, says Diwakar. Every 15 days we get the picture of surface water body in the entire country, he adds. This kind of data is automatically processed and published on ISRO portal. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh States have launched a major program on water resources management using our technology and the advantage of such bi-weekly data on water from space.
ISRO’s achievements are already formidable but with growing use of space for defence and commercial purposes, its role is bound to increase and it must therefore strive to remain ahead of the curve by inviting India’s private sector to forge a beneficial partnership. As Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow and head, Nuclear & Space Policy Initiative, at the Observer Research Foundation says, “India has a sizeable and talented private sector that must be brought in to maximize the capacity to manufacture as well as launch satellites. Isro might need to do a bit of handholding in the beginning but with a little help the Indian private sector can contribute to India’s space growth story in an effective manner.”
Increasing private sector participation part, ISRO will need to remain focused on India’s defence and strategic requirements in coming years and contribute much more than before in securing India through precise application of its capabilities even as it continues to attain new heights in commercial application of space assets.
(From my book Securing India The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical Strikes and more)