ISRO’s BIG 3

ISRO’s BIG 3

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The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is betting big on its BIG three offerings as part of its efforts to act as a force-multiplier in promoting use of space technology for better governance. 

The big three here is BIG. Literally. The acronym stands for the three pioneering programs from ISRO — the ISRO geoportal Bhuvan, Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) and GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation (GAGAN). 

While Bhuvan was launched a few years back and already has a commendable set of satellite data and applications for end users, it is now being aggressively diversified. GAGAN became operational last year, and IRNSS is in its finishing stages. 

 

IRNSS: India’s own eyes in the sky

It is the IRNSS which could emerge as the jewel in the crown for ISRO. Initially an ambitious sounding project which aimed to provide a better-than-GPS coverage for India and the subcontinent, the IRNSS is in its final leg now and could become operational by the middle of this year 

“We have two more satellites to be launched in the constellation of seven satellites,” says ISRO Chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar. After the last two satellites go up on March 10 and March 31, it will take two more months for the system to provide accurate location data for India and up to a range of 1,500 km. Kumar believes that the system will be fully operational by June or July. 

Interestingly, IRNSS can be used even today as the five existing satellites are enough for giving location accuracies of a few meters. The remaining sixth and seventh satellites are merely extending the region of observation.

ISRO claims that the desi GPS will be more accurate than the GPS itself. Explaining how that would be possible, Kumar says the 24-satellite GPS constellation covers the entire world, while the IRNSS satellites will be positioned only over India. “All these seven satellites will be visible to the ground receivers all the time. In GPS, the number of satellites visible to the receiver at any given point of time is limited.”

As the service goes fully operational, the government will be in a position to offer two services — a standard positioning service for civilian use, and a high-end encrypted restricted service meant for authorized users, such as, the armed forces. 

Kumar adds that ISRO could also look at the possibility of extending the IRNSS service to India’s neighboring countries and some discussions are already on. With time, the coverage area can be extended on the Gulf and the Korean side.

There may even be a move for IRNSS location chip in Indian cellphones, even though GPS is now the worldwide standard. However, Kumar rules out any such immediate move. “If you are looking at it from a common man’s perspective of using it on hand-held devices, then we are still some distance away… It is not going to happen within few months because mobile devices are tuned in for frequency of GPS and our system requires a frequency which is slightly different from that. So, efforts are on to make sure that the future systems will incorporate this, and that the devices within the country and in neighboring countries can make use of the signals and give you position based on that.” Already manufacturers have shown interest and are trying to incorporate positioning information using GAGAN and IRNSS in their processing systems.


However, Kumar is quick to add that there are a lot of other applications where receiver systems are being developed. “We have got some industries developing products and solutions based on our software. They provide accurate positioning information for various other applications. We still have to do lots of work before it gets incorporated into the mobile devices.”

 

GAGAN: Clearing the skies

GAGAN is meant to provide accurate navigation services over the Bay of Bengal, South East Asia, the Indian Ocean, Middle East and African regions. GAGAN, which means sky in Hindi, works by augmenting and relaying data from GPS satellites with the help of two augmentation satellites and 15 earth-based reference stations. According to A.S. Ganeshan, Project Director of GAGAN, two satellites carrying the GAGAN payload augment the performance of GPS signals received over Indian airspace, thus correcting any anomalies in the position data, and give accurate routes. GAGAN is capable of providing 1.5-meter accuracy in the horizontal and 2.5-meter in the vertical plane. This would allow Airport Authority of India (AAI) to pack many aircraft one behind the other, thus saving on fuel and time, as well as lowering carbon emissions. 

“Today, we have Instrument Landing System (ILS) in majority of airports which supports the landing requirements. These will be replaced by GAGAN,” adds Ganeshan. Further, there are talks on greenfield airports for small cities and districts. Developing and maintenance of very good landing facilities at these places become time-consuming and expensive. All of this can be simplified with just a GAGAN receiver on board and a flight management system equipped on the aircraft.


ISRO is also working closely with the Indian Railways to leverage GAGAN beyond the aviation sector. A ‘hooting’ system would warn people at unmanned railway crossings about the arrival of trains. This would happen in collaboration with Bhuvan, which documents a detailed map of India. Trial runs have been successful.

Further, work is also on for developing anti-collision devices in the Konkan Valley. The system envisages a unique ID for each railway line and relative positions of trains can be transferred to a central information hub to ensure that trains don’t collide. There are also plans to install GAGAN receivers on goods train to get their location. “If you know the position of your wagons, you can easily divert them according to your needs,” says Ganeshan, stressing that GAGAN has the ability to transform Indian Railways into an intelligent transportation system. “In Chennai, we have implemented a paperless ticketing system. A GAGAN-based app automatically deducts money when you board a train, so you don’t have to stand in a queue to get a paper ticket.”

The Ministry of Environment and Forests is already using GAGAN to identify wildfires in the forest areas. GAGAN could soon become compulsory in all emergency service vehicles and systems as is being done in the West. Other than intelligent transportation, the system can further be used for maritime navigation, highways, security agencies, telecom industry, personal users of position location applications and others.

GAGAN is likely to play a key role in developing smart cities in India. “A smart city must have a good transportation system, and position information becomes fundamental here. GAGAN will fulfill this role,” adds Ganeshan.

 

Bhuvan: The work on the ground

Bhuvan, meaning Earth in Hindi, is ISRO’s geo platform which allows users to explore a 2D/3D representation of the surface of the Earth. The browser is specifically tailored to view India, offering the highest resolution in this region and providing content in four local languages. Apart from visualization, Bhuvan also has a range of near real-time to fast-to-establish datasets for a range of applications, says Dr V.K. Dadhwal, Director at National Remote Sensing Center (NRSC).  

From its rather modest beginning in 2009 with simple display of satellite data and basic GIS functionality with thematic maps, in the recent years Bhuvan has grown horizontally in diverse areas of applications and vertically in terms of number of image and map services. Over 6,000 map services offered by Bhuvan are being used under various applications, including timely disaster support services (domestic and international). 

Bhuvan was recently diversified as ISRO sees the service as a key tool to implement India's smart city programs. An MoU with the Union Ministry of Urban Development for mapping over 500 towns and cities points to this direction. "We have tied up with the ministry to map over 4,041 areas including around 500 urban local bodies. After mapping these cities and towns, we will prepare a base plan which will help town planners prepare better master plans,” says Dr Dadhwal. The move will help the town planners to prepare master plans for many fast growing urban local bodies, keeping in view projected population growth, topography and available natural resources in the surrounding areas.

Bhuvan is now offering application services like 1 meter satellite images for more than 300 cities in the country and 3D city models with extrusions of the buildings and virtual city models, which would also be a useful tool for the Smart City program of the government.

The platform is currently being used to create database of national highways and toll plazas, develop island information system for developmental decision making for border management and mapping country-wide ground water, among other services. All this is apart from its primary role of a communication and navigation application and weather forecasting. With ISRO recently announcing that the organization will make all satellite data as new as 6 months old available free to the users, Bhuvan could emerge as a real game changer in the Indian government’s efforts to encourage use of spatial data in governance and development work. 

 

BIG projects, big results

Back in October 2015, G. Satheesh Reddy, Scientific Adviser to the defence minister, had commented at ISRO’s GNSS User Meet: “We have to keep one thing in mind, we always have GPS and GLONASS which are available worldwide… We need to compete with them in commercialization.”  Simply put, he had prompted that, like in Russia, India should also go for INRSS location determining chip in cellphones, even though GPS is now the worldwide standard. Moreover, the AAI is also pushing for GAGAN receivers to be installed on all aircraft flying in Indian airspace by April 2017. 

With the Indian government’s Make in India program being touted a massive opportunity for the country to come up as a low-cost, high-skill manufacturing hub, many see the success of these BIG three ISRO missions leading to India emerge as a global manufacturing center for GNSS sensors and other related hardware and software. While that may yet take some time and lots of foresight and enabling policy support, ISRO has indeed started the ball rolling.