“Our steps may be small; but they are measured”

“Our steps may be small; but they are measured”

Prof V. Jayaraman, Former Director, National Remote Sensing Centre
Prof V. Jayaraman
Former Director, National Remote Sensing Centre

The evolution of the Indian Remote Sensing programme is actually the acceptance of the remote sensing technology and its applications by a wide variety of users in the country, believes Prof V. Jayaraman, Former Director, National Remote Sensing Centre. In an interview with Geospatial Media, Prof Jayaraman talks of Indian Space Research Organisation’s commitment to national development and why accountability is its topmost priority

India just celebrated 25 years of Indian Remote Sensing programme. How do you see evolution of the remote sensing programme in the country?
In 1969, Vikram Sarabhai brought the idea of remote sensing to India from the UN Vienna Conference. He believed that this technology is going to be one of the viable means for India’s national development and brought Prof Pisharoty to experiment with remote sensing directly on a problem of immense worry to Kerala – the coconut wilt disease. National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) came into being in 1974 as an autonomous Society under the Department of Science and Technology. At that time, it was essentially responsible for aerial photography. The setting up of NRSA was close to the launch of first civilian remote sensing satellite by USA in 1972, namely the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) later renamed as LANDSAT. So, we started using data from LANDSAT data initially apart from aerial photography in those early years. The launch of Aryabhatta, our first scientific satellite in 1975 and later the experimental remote sensing satellites like BHASKARA 1 & 2 in 1979 and 1981, along with focused steps at the ground segment level to establish facilities for data reception, processing and dissemination, as well as conducting many pilot level application projects involving the users, were the initial steps that saw India emerge as a player in the remote sensing arena. Also, the evolution of the unique institutional arrangement, the National Natural Resources Management System (NNRMS) in the early 80s paved the way for seamless integration of user requirements in defining a viable indigenous satellite system for the country. India went ahead in conducting IRS Utilisation Programme with focused participation from the user community to prepare themselves to make use of IRS data once the satellite was launched. The formation of high power Standing Committees in different thematic areas with the concerned Secretary to the Government of India at the helm of affairs helped this process further. It was due to the foresight of NNRMS that India went on to establish five regional remote sensing centres in close cooperation with the user ministries so that the image processing facilities were available well before the satellite was launched. It is no wonder that NNRMS is considered to be the most unique model. Many countries in the region and elsewhere continue to evince keen interest in this arrangement.

The launch of IRS-1A in 1988 was the crowning glory to these sustained efforts, both at the space and ground segments. It is worth mentioning that we were having the end-to-end systems ready to process the data as well as ready to use the data by the time the satellite was operational. IRS 1A marked the quantum jump for ISRO as we mastered the art of making state-of-the-art remote sensing satellite system with corresponding ground segment components with a network of ground stations around the world to track the satellite and also to receive the data from the satellite for their own use. Just to illustrate one aspect of that quantum jump – from the spinning satellite of BHASKARA, we went on to develop a 3-axis stabilised satellite with high pointing accuracies, developed almost all the attitude control sensors and the actuators internally in the country, matching in specifications with the best in the world. Similarly, the data rate jumped from around 100 kilobits per second in BHASKARA was to 25 megabits in IRS 1A! All with indigenous systems developed in-house! It was done almost without any hiccup!

Nobody gives you technology for free and you need to develop everything for yourself. Even for those items we had to import, and we had to ensure that their specifications were well understood with all the impacts assessed. It was an exciting period for the young engineers and scientists. We always remember the pioneering work done by Dr George Joseph and his team in choosing the CCD based push-broom scanner over the mechanical scanner for the payloads. That decision made us realise the overall system efficiently with enhanced reliability. The various technological choices were made after careful trade-off studies and they helped in laying solid foundation for the follow-on IRS programme.

Even as we were trying to master the technology, we were fully aware that our efforts were always governed by the ‘applications- driven’ vision of our founding father, Dr Vikram Sarabhai . These applications, as we know, essentially address food security and poverty elevation, infrastructure development (both physical and social), weather and climate change adaptation and disaster management support programmes for the country.

During 1990s, Prof U.R. Rao, the then Chairman, ISRO, launched some of the most significant applications such as the agricultural drought assessment and monitoring and Integrated Mission for Sustainable Development (IMSD). IMSD brought in, for the first time, the decision makers, scientists and the stakeholders (including the NGOs) together. Extensive mapping of the country, particularly at watershed level, was done creating specific soil and water conservation advisories. There were many other initiatives with the users like Potential Fishery Zone (PFZ) mapping, Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, wasteland mapping programme which enabled institutionalising remote sensing at the user end. Today, Forest Survey of India brings out biennial forest cover information using satellite data and the Indian National Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, provides the PFZ advisories operationally to the fishermen community. The recent launch of Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Centre, under the aegis of Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, is yet another example of this continuing exercise. Ministry of Environment & Forests, Department of Agriculture & Cooperation, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Urban Development, Survey of India (Department of Science & Technology), Ministry of Rural Development, Department of Biotechnology (DBT), and Ministry of Earth Sciences are among the many Ministries/ Departments operationally using the remote sensing data in their day-to-day functioning. Various state governments have set up their own state remote sensing centres with necessary infrastructure and manpower. Industry and academia are also having major share in making remote sensing a success story in our country. The most redeeming feature is the acceptance of this high technology in a developing country like India as envisaged by Dr Vikram Sarabhai.

India continues to lead in the use of remote sensing in many applications at various levels of governance. It is also gratifying to note that India captured the Number 1 slot in satellite technology within 7-8 years of the launch of IRS-1A. Our 5.8 metre from IRS 1C and 1D satellites was the best in the world during that period. The French SPOT had 10 m resolution that time. In 1999, we launched Oceansat-1 with 350-metre spatial resolution, which was far better than the American satellite SeaWiFs, which had 1 km spatial resolution. We also went on to demonstrate 1 metre resolution capability with our Technology experimental Satellite (TES) adopting an innovative method known as Step & Stare method in 2001.

The saga of remote sensing in India continues with ISRO operating three thematic series of remote sensing satellites, namely the RESOURCESAT series for land and water applications, CARTOSAT series of satellites for large scale mapping; and ocean and atmosphere series of satellites in low-earth orbits as well as geostationary orbits. Some of these satellites have become part of the Virtual Constellation of satellites of the international Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS). India is today considered to be a major player to reckon with in international arena of remote sensing.

Q. You say we were the best at one point of time. How did we lose that rank?
We did not lose the ranking. In fact, in many of the thematic series of satellites like RESOURCESAT AWiFS, Oceansat Scatterometer; RISAT-1 SAR; MeghaTropiques and the recently launched SARAL, we are far ahead of others. Oceansat 2 Scatterometer data is very widely acclaimed and sought-after data by the global community today. Even in Cartosat series of satellites, there is no other satellite which can match the stereoscopic coverage of Cartosat-1. And of course, none can match our operational use of these satellites at the user-end.

The reference to this question seems to be only high resolution satellites with sub-metre imaging capability. Even there, you will see satellites with enhanced capability in the coming days. In fact, we do believe that the resolution is not the end of the story. Higher resolution is not essential for every application; it brings more complexity in processing. So, we took very a cautious decision in tune with the demand of applications.

I agree that in marketing ourselves, we may not be the best and that could be one of the reasons [why we are not viewed as one of the best]. You also should note the investment made by us in satellite making. And of course, we can’t compete with the US in terms of money. A satellite like Landsat costs anywhere between $ 600 to $ 800 million (approx Rs 3,000-4,000 crore). In India, we are making satellites for Rs 200-400 crore.

By the by, one can see even NASA, ESA and JAXA do not make high resolution satellites. They concentrate on public good services like climate change adaptation and disaster management. They have shifted that responsibility to the private sector for making high resolution satellites as commercial ventures. But interestingly, private players get funded from the governments, at least in the US. For example, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGIA) funded DigitalGlobe and GeoEye to the tune of $7.9 billion. There is also a data buy-back guarantee from the Government. And, these companies are then allowed to go and market the data at commercial rates elsewhere. The current recession has slightly dented this agreement and some modifications are sought to be made. In fact, it has led to the merging of these two companies.

We in India follow the Remote Sensing Data Policy (RSDP) which allows up to 1 metre resolution and all our satellites and data supply comply with that policy. NRSC is single window delivery system to enforce that policy in the country. Not only do we follow this ethics in our country, but also elsewhere. Even today on our Website Bhuvan, we do not put high-resolution data of the world, though we do possess the same. We think it is ethically wrong to put data which could create difficulties for others. We are a government agency and publicly funded. We have to be cautious about our commitments.

Q. What are your views on self reliance in terms of technology and launch?
A. All the remote sensing satellites in India have been launched indigenously using PSLV. Remote sensing satellites, including payloads, complete altitude control system, sensors — everything is made in India. Nothing is imported except the essential, space qualified electronic components wherever absolutely needed. There could be some delays in development of systems because of this. Some components are not easily available to us due to reasons you know well. So we go a round-about way using very innovative ideas. That is why we opted for the Step-and-Stare method, which I mentioned earlier, for our high resolution satellite like TES and Cartosat 2. We are proud Indians who believe in indigenisation and you would have seen that spirit in all the ISRO ventures.

Q. The XII Five Year Plan has charted out a very ambitious programmes for ISRO for the next five years. What is the ground reality in terms of infrastructure and manpower capacity?
I do not want to make any comments on this as I am currently not in service and it won’t be proper to make comments. However, I can safely make one statement. Whenever ISRO makes project proposal, it includes infrastructure, both on the ground and space segments. It includes investment in human resources and it takes care of the scientists/engineers who are good in that particular programme. Large-scale investment on employees is one of the essential components of ISRO. You should have people with intelligence and passion and commitment to compete with the global players. That is where a lot of our investment goes. I also should mention that the government also provides adequate funding for our programme.

In remote sensing, we continue the use of complimentary and supplementary data from foreign satellites because no single country can make all the satellites it needs. Let me repeat what I have always said: Our steps could be small; but they will be measured ones.

There are three components we always cherish when talk about ISRO – continued governmental support (political will), professional leadership; and public trust. We do not want to do anything which will erode that confidence.

With Dr K. Kasturirangan [former ISRO chief and now Member of the Government of India’s Planning Commission] as the current Chairman of the Planning Committee of NNRMS, ISRO is very sensitive towards users and NNRMS provides the forum to guide all our remote sensing activities. It makes us realise that accountability is very important. In fact it has become the mission for NRSC – making actionable data products and services accessible in an affordable manner!