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Plan today to find answers for tomorrow’s problems

ISRO Chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar
ISRO Chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar

Last year, ISRO had a meeting with all the ministries on using space technologies for governance. What was the outcome of that meeting?

This is very positive development. ISRO has been trying since long to convince various government departments about the benefits of the space technology. Few departments took it very positively and used it, but most of the others were lukewarm. Based on recent developments and the drive coming from the Government of India, we had very effective discussion with 60 departments. Now we are having programs meet their demands and entering into MoUs accordingly.

Now that the data requirement is likely to go up, do you think it is now necessary to further augment the facilities available with the NRSC?

One of the things we are working on is to make the image data available for the users with the help of some 200 servers located at various places. Our general idea is to encourage the academic institutions and industry to work together and come up with solutions which we will provide. We want more indigenous software to get in because these days we are dependent on the GIS software from others. That is one stumbling block and we want to promote indigenous software development. As much as 90% of software that we develop is for the problems outside the country where it is exactly the reverse in China.  We plan to bring everyone together in the communication and GIS areas.  We will also be working with academic institutions.

Most of ISRO’s associations are academic oriented. Do you think you need some other kind of organization to be able to work with industries; something like FICCI, CII or NASSCOM?

This is an area which is evolving. We have limited manpower. For rolling out, serving and providing solution in a limited time frame, we will need the help of the private industry. One of the ideas is to promote the Association of Geospatial Industries [AGI] to take bigger role in terms of dissemination, training and making things known.

Dialogues are required and mechanisms will have to be worked out. We do not have good interaction on such areas as of now, so we need to be a little more open and have discussions. The overall environment also plays a big role. Today, the situation might be far better than what it was earlier. We need to have a concrete discussion about the plans which benefits the country as a whole.

You mentioned China’s capability to have home-grown software. China has been very aggressive while pushing space technology. For example, they are offering data for free, they send huge delegations all across the globe. What will India’s response be? Do we also start giving away free data?

It is not that we are not providing data. So far, we were offering data up to two years old free on Bhuvan geo-portal. Recently, we made an announcement that we will be providing data as new as six months old for free.
Globally also data up to certain resolution is being provided free. So, we also need to make sure that whatever data we generate is made accessible to the people in the country. There will be some lock-in period where we will charge someone to provide data for the commercial purpose.

There was this news about Indo-US ‘SAR’ Satellite called NISAR. Could you tell us something more about the project?

NISAR or the NASA–ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar program is one of the projects that has emerged as an important link between ISRO and NASA, working together for a common mission of global data generation. The NASA program was looking for a system where you could have synthetic aperture radar. What is being attempted in this is a new concept called sweep SAR concept which enables providing large swathes and as a result high repetivity .

This is going to be a dual frequency L and S band, of which NASA will work on the L band portion while we will work on the S band. The payload integration will happen at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and then it will be brought to India. We will then build the satellite and launch it. We are now looking at a launch frame time of 2020-21 since the program has been fully approved on both sides.

One of the key capabilities of this satellite, which will cover the earth once in 12 days, will be to provide repeat pass interferometric observation capability in both L and S bands. There are different modes and you can get 3 to 5 meters of resolution. For India, it will be extremely useful in terms of providing good inputs for biomass estimation and for some of the activities related to glaciers and soil mass study. It will also provide information on ice sheet formation. The repeat pass interferometry will also enable us to study surface deformation on the earth surface and the accuracy can go up to as high as centimetres. It is expected to provide an extremely good data base for R&D in earthquake, earthquake precursor generation and monitoring related activities.

Since there is a 2020-21 timeframe to the program, we are trying to prepare the user effectively by bringing in simulation data. We are also building an aircraft-borne SAR which will operate at L and S band frequencies. Using such data, researchers can come up with operational utilization plans. This is where we have plans for utilizing educational institutions. This is going to be a good time for academic institutions to make use of this opportunity and contribute to the project, development as well as utilization.

ISRO satellite launch
ISRO satellite launch

Is there any other international co-operation that ISRO is doing or planning to do?

One of the things that we see is that all space agencies are dealing with fund issues. This is driving all the space agencies to work together and find out common programs. Megha-Tropiques is one such program which is still providing useful data for weather forecasting. We have built and launched satellites where payloads came from CNES. We are also working on dual frequency scatterometer studies. Other than NASA, there are common missions being planned with JAXA and CNES. We are also in discussion with a large number of other space agencies for making use of the space capabilities. It is a continuous process and more and more interaction is happening on this.

What about the SAARC satellites?

The SAARC satellite is an extremely interesting development that has taken place with the current government taking the initiative. We are trying to provide one to two transponders to each SAARC nation. These transponders can be used by them according to their own requirement — be it telecommunication, telemarketing etc. All the SAARC countries will be linked together by communication and it can be used to provide hotline services to the state heads. In terms of availability, it is for communication, but could help in disaster monitoring, remote sensing and exchange of information, etc.

All ISRO chairmen have left some mark. What will be the mark that you will be leaving behind?

Your question itself answers it. When a person takes charge of a certain office, the situation at that time decides what is to be done. When I took over, we had just overcome the problems of cryogenic engine, etc. Many of the solutions had been found. So the main job for me was to complete all the approved programs in a certain time frame. We were able to do one launch every month. Next year, we are planning about 10 to 11 launches. Today, we have a huge demands for communication, DTH, remote sensing. My job is to make all this happen apart from finishing the pending projects. My main idea is to consolidate, plan for future in such a way that today’s problems find an answer.