IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Space 2.0: Indian entrepreneurship in Space

Written by Narayan Prasad.

India’s space programme is more than five decades old and today India has come to be acknowledged as an established space power. India began its space journey in 1963 with the launch of a sounding rocket (Nike-Apache) supplied by NASA, a sodium vapour payload by France, with a range clearance provided by a Russian helicopter. From these humble beginnings, India in the 1980s developed remote sensing (IRS), communications (INSAT), navigation (IRNSS), interplanetary and science missions as well as maturing its rocket technology with launch vehicles such as the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). Today, this technology capability built in the country is serving several applications in agriculture, fishing, education, disaster management, security, etc.

The bottom-line here is creating a holistic solution using space and ground-based technologies to impact the lives of low-income farmers

While the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is carrying forward the space programme in an accelerated mode of trying to put in place over 70 satellites for various applications by 2020, they have in the process inspired several Indian entrepreneurs to form companies that can inspire a whole new generation of fellow Indians to dream of businesses based on space products and services.

Figure – The emerging Indian NewSpace ecosystem

The ecosystem is very recent with start-ups in a mix of both upstream and downstream offerings such as Team Indus, Earth2Orbit, Astrome Technologies, Bellatrix Aerospace, Specific Impulse Technologies and SatSure. The spread of these companies includes dreams of landing a rover on the Moon, developing a space-based internet service, developing a private launch vehicle, training generations of students with hands-on space projects and using space data to change the face of how space-based technology can be used to provide forecasts to important sectors such as agriculture.

The general belief of NewSpace in India is to complement ISRO activities and to foray into B2B and B2C business models. These will allow foraying into new services as independent businesses. Moreover, these initiatives can benefit from the expertise built up by ISRO and try to utilise resources (satellite/launch vehicle access, satellite imagery data, etc.) and focus on their minimum viable product. To highlight this approach further, a case study of using satellite data in a NewSpace approach is provided below.

A case study of NewSpace in India – SatSure providing satellite-powered data analytics to empower lives of farmers

Some of the immediate challenges faced by the farmers in India are depleting groundwater resources, climate change, an increase in the frequency of extreme events like droughts, floods etc., lack of fair and timely compensation for losses incurred, lack of transparency in fixing the fair price for the produce and difficulty in access to markets. The lack of a proper insurance market and an unlocalised insurance index developed by insurance companies is also a major issue as fair insurance premiums are not triggered. These are compounded by existing problems like the farmers’ debt burden, their lack of access to scientific agricultural practices, dwindling farm holding sizes and institutional apathy access to markets. This a case where space data combined with ground and socio-economic data has the potential of charting a solution for the farm sector.  One of the various NewSpace start-ups, called SatSure, helps with decision-making related to crop risk management, crop risk ratings, predictive crop modelling, water-use efficiency, precision farming, and agriculture policy making.

Analysis of Old Space vs NewSpace approach

While traditional approaches to such farm sector problems were mostly looked from data islands perspective (GIS techniques, crop prices, environment data, etc.), the NewSpace approach tries to combine multiple sources of data (space and non-space) by building algorithms and models that increase the precision of the analysis done for crop management. In this case, the data sources are

Satellite data: Making use of the freely available multispectral satellite imagery from the likes of the Sentinel, Landsat and MODIS programs as well as commercial satellite imagery based on area of interest and land size. With the supply of commercial remote sensing satellites expected to go up due to large constellations of small satellites being planned, sources and the quality of data seems to only increase with time.

IOT data: Data from agri-IoT sensors provide crucial information on soil nutrients, health, and weather through the in-situ measurements at the farms. Such information can be directly streamed to decision markers alongside the analytics provided by satellite data and can be used for the improvement of yield estimates and prediction.

Weather data: While satellite imagery provides a measure of vegetation indices, which are based on surface characteristics, weather variables like temperature, solar radiation, wind, and humidity, the energy balance at the soil adds to the accuracy of the assessment  of crop bulk properties such as yield.

Socio-economic data: Economic datasets such as crop price indices at the national level and local level crop prices allow for historical trend analysis and can help stakeholders in decision-making.

The bottom-line here is creating a holistic solution using space and ground-based technologies to impact the lives of low-income farmers, albeit indirectly, by helping them become a part of the financial institutions who had not seen this sector to be profitable due to their poor risk management approach. Working with relevant stakeholders in the sector, such technologies can be rolled out to potentially leapfrog the income of the farming communities at large.

While ISRO will continue to create several major technological feats in the coming years, NewSpace India should continue to target pockets of complimentary services to the state-led space programme and create a niche for itself. In the coming years it should look to  expand the scope and scale of services regionally and globally.

Narayan Prasad Nagendra is an Erasmus Mundus Space Master graduate and an EGIDE scholar with a Master in Space Technology, Sweden. Narayan also has a Master in Space Techniques and Instrumentation from France and a Master in Space and Telecom Laws from NALSAR Law University, Hyderabad. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Business School of University of Erlangen Nuremberg. He tweets @cosmosguru. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons/Flickr.