President, Projects, RIL
Though it wouldn’t want to gloat about it, Reliance Industries has travelled a long way on the geospatial map. India’s biggest corporate entity is reaping the benefits of making GIS a part of its work plan at an opportune stage, says Sanjay Mashruwala, President, Projects, RIL
When did Reliance Industries get into GIS? How is the group leveraging the strengths of geospatial technology in its operations?
We started looking at GIS as a non-engineering tool for rolling out the optical fibre communication (OFC) network or infrastructure for our telecom foray in 2002. We looked at GIS as an enabler to roll out the telecom network and started creating our database. Over a period, those were populated and enhanced with more data – not only just telecom data but also for gas pipelines and later the retail exercise. We also started looking at the essential capabilities of GIS to do a variety of things related to our businesses – whether it was related to just mapping or capturing various data related to maps and geographies.
Around 2002-03, complex GIS-based services such as mapping, routing and other things that are now available to the public were not around. Neither was telecom technology in terms of Internet and bandwidth to that extent. In the early 2000s, the idea was not to look at any retail customerbased services. Today, the situation is different because a lot of these services are available and lot of information can be put in – the way Google does the Street View and the 3D, which is called internal GIS or indoor GIS. We still use those to support our project and network rollout. If it is indoors, it is more towards looking at how we would use the indoor details to wire up a home or office or penetration of radio/WiFi waves etc.
The same thing is required for outdoors, say LiDAR to get an accurate detail about the streets, the width and obstacles and so on. You need 3D maps to do radio frequency (RF) studies and RF propagation on designing – where it is appropriate to put a mast since there are radiation issues that need to be looked into. We need geospatial data from coverage point of view to give a good service and also do it in a safe way from radiation point of view and other radio-related things like interference and path etc. We are collecting data from independent sources where we are confi- dent of accuracy. If some data is not available, we may have to use services like LiDAR to generate it. Depending on what we need and what is available, we are enhancing our database so that we can use our engineering processes and project rollout easily and conveniently.
When you started 10-11 years ago, awareness about this technology was very limited. What motivated you to invest in such a technology?
The use and awareness of this technology was there in the US and Europe. Even in 2002, the maps of the US and the developed countries were more detailed. Their civil records and municipal records were much better than in India. When companies there rolled out their networks, they had access to good and accurate maps. We looked at some of the techniques being used in the US and Europe, not just in mapping but in totality of rollout, such as tools and machines used in construction. Those days, we used manual labour to dig trenches in India, whereas the West was using hydraulic trenching machines.
We were not looking at GIS in isolation; it was part of our overall execution methodology. We realised that a good accurate map and accurate information about wherever we are going to execute the work would be very useful. So we started looking at data that was available locally, and obviously that was quite inadequate. That is where we decided that we will have to build on this and create more data. Most of the available maps were not updated and accurate. We realised that the road as recorded and the one that actually existed when you do a GPS tracking was completely different. So we started work on accuracy of the maps, the details on it and the current status.
All that data was needed to do the fibre route layout. There were hundreds of details that had to be collected accurately to make sure of fast and accurate execution. Subsequently, we obtained very good built information on location, condition and size of the fibre or the location of the splices. This information was useful for operational maintenance too. The aim was that in case of a national long-distance problem or fibre damage situation, restoration of services should not take more than six hours. Our network is in the form of rings and in case of even one disconnection we have to ensure there is at least one alternate path for the signal.
GIS was one platform that required a lot of method and processes. And we developed these things to quickly identify the fault location and inform the maintenance crew exactly where to go. Whatever capabilities were required in GIS related to routing, accurate pointing using GPS and such, we developed or put together so that the there was continuity in terms of service.
Basically the technology helped you to deliver your services better?
Yes. To ensure that the network was in good shape, the rollout was executed fast, constructed fast, and maintained accurately. [For the new telecom venture] we are using GIS or information that can be captured using the GIS and georeferenced databases to support network planning, engineering, operations and maintenance. The technology helps us to know where our assets are and helps us to reach them fast. Plus, it also helps in feasibility. If one day a customer says ‘I want the service at this location’, we can see the place on the map and figure out how we can go to that place for a quick feasibility study. If it involves a whole lot of additional capital expense, we can also go back to the customer and say it will cost this much to provide service in that location. This way, responding to such customer needs becomes faster.
Also the technology enables us to look at other data in terms of density, income level, type of population in a certain area so that we know where to direct our marketing resources, identify potential high-density areas, look at other competitors in that area, look at our mobile and RF coverage etc. We can also locate where call drops are frequent and address such issues.
Did you do any assessment study to evaluate how much money you saved in terms of cost?
Not really. But if we had not used the technology, we would have not known what it would cost us. I am sure the network rollout would have taken much more time. But that can’t really be translated into cost. In 2000 when we started, we had nothing; we were not even a telecom company. We got into this thinking process in 1999 and started physical work in 2000. Within two years we had the whole country fibred and towered up, and rolled out the telecom services. By 2003, we were there almost everywhere.
Saving the project time was a huge benefit in this case. That rollout speed would not have been possible had we not used new techniques and tools. GIS is one of them.
It started with telecom but later RIL used this technology setup for several other applications.
Yes, that worked for the group because Reliance has interest in a wide variety of activities. We had a way of working with other group companies explaining how this technology could benefit them. The GIS team interacted with all other group companies. That was the management mandate too.
Even as the telecom business is now with ADAG, RIL plans to use the GIS system it had developed earlier for its fresh telecom venture
You are coming back to RIL’s telecom business and you will also be running other businesses of the group. What kind of visions or directions you have for development of geospatial strategies?
Newer technologies are available which allow us to capture the information or data faster and more accurately, in a way not possible earlier. Street View, indoor GIS, LiDAR, 3D mapping are some of the examples. As we go forward, more technologies will be available and the devices will become more powerful, both in terms of software and hardware. Using all these facilities, one can continuously enhance the data. And it is not just the question of adding to the data that is there. Non-linear update with new information incorporated into GIS is one direction while the other direction is to integrate this information automatically to any other activities in the business. This means you don’t have to actually work on the GIS. The GIS data becomes the background. For instance, in terms of maintenance, when the technician gets a call that services are interrupted somewhere, GIS enables automatic collection of data from the network electronics to detect the fault. The system figures out the type and location of the problem, decides the corrective action based on a pre-determined plan and tells the technician where to go and what to do.
What other businesses are you looking at for using this technology?
We used it for distribution of petroleum products – you can do the routing, planning of logistics, storing and so on. We have so many retail stores; so again, the logistics distribution, stock-taking, monitoring of inventory, adjusting the inventory amount in various locations, kind of sales, optimising distribution points etc. There are a whole lot of things that can be done in retail. Right now with the help of these technologies, the market is becoming more and more competitive and expectation of customers is going up. So, we plan to use this technology extensively to improve our services and customer experiences. It will always help if you are able to intelligently utilise more information and co-relate it with other information.
Do you also use it for oil exploration and other purposes too or leave it to distribution only?
Exploration requires a different kind of GIS technique which we are not using. Our GIS system is land-based and is of no use in sub-sea or undersea explorations. But this information is useful for the gas and petrol in areas like route planning. We manufacture so many products like polyester, plastics, petrochemicals etc distribution, logistics and routes. For these a proper GIS is always useful.
RIL uses GIS for distribution of petroleum products – routing, planning of logistics and storing etc
What are the major challenges in your experience from technology point of view?
We are probably the first one in the country to be doing this on such a scale. There are players who are ready to give us readymade solutions so that the system becomes more exploratory. But it is not as if we can walk up to somebody and say this is what we want and we get that service readily. We ourselves have to explore, learn and figure out how to do it. So obviously, there is a significant amount of learning and understanding that we need to do on our own, which, ideally speaking, may not be necessary in a developed technology.
Same thing is related to information too. Right now, there is not a single map in the country in any municipal area which shows all the underground services accurately marked in a single database. When you want to dig a road to put in the fibre, you have to talk to fivesix different organisations/agencies, collect the data and compile all of that. Eventually, we find that most of the data is wrong. People have the [original] drawings of various networks [such as drainage and water pipelines]. But [during the layout stage], the contractors put the networks somewhere else and that was never recorded back. The actual situation below the ground is very different from what it is in the drawings and maps, and unfortunately there is no way to see that unless you dig and do some tests.
Situation above the road is no different. We are trying to overcome this challenge by collecting the data, putting it together, then going into the field and trying to co-relate it. If we have LiDAR available, we use it. For things like a light pole, there will be a cable below it, so even if it is not shown in the map, we can see it by LiDAR.
Any specific message to geospatial industry?
There is so much potential in the country. This information will be useful to everybody and not just to us. In India, we do not have addressing schemes, clear road names or accurate maps. Developing a complete set of security data will be useful for everyone – whether it is for law enforcement or any civic authorities.