There are few political buttons more effective than keeping up with the Joneses. And the Surveyor General of India, Dr. Swarna Subba Rao, knows that. So, when he wanted to emphasize what was keeping the geospatial industry from realizing its full potential in India, Dr. Rao was quick to point that Pakistan was using a technology to achieve heightened positional accuracy, while our country has been waiting for the government nod on the same for years now.
Speaking at a seminar on geospatial technologies in India, organized by FICCI this week, the Surveyor General stressed that the government is not worried about the development of the geospatial industry because it is occupied with inter-ministerial turf wars. Highlighting that many developed countries that we look up to as role models have no restrictions on geospatial data, Dr. Rao lamented that our national mapping agency is still a subordinate office of the Government of India, even after 250 years of its existence.
And then came the final blow. “Even Pakistan has implemented CORS, or a Continuously Operating Reference Station network. And we have been chasing the government to use this technology for years now, but to no effect,” he sighed.
So, what is CORS, why does it matter, and what is stopping India from using it?
What is CORS?
Curtin University describes CORS as “a concept in GNSS geodesy/surveying/positioning that enables users (e.g. moving platforms) to position themselves with high-precision (cm-level).” And according to the University of New South Wales in Australia, “CORS can take the place of a traditional base station used in differential GNSS positing. They can give an instant position to an accuracy of ± 20 mm.”
Put simply, CORS is a GPS augmentation system that facilities archives and distributes GPS data corrections for precise positioning in an automated manner, usually over an Internet connection. Distance-dependent errors are greatly reduced because more than one station is at work to ensure correct positioning. It is a fast, homogenized and economical means of positioning data. All a user needs to perform single-handed, post-processed relative positioning are data from a GPS receiver and data collected by the reference station at the same time.
Who benefits from CORS?
CORS technology is rapidly becoming the preferred method for accurate 3D positioning across the world, and forms the basis for any smart city agenda. It is in great demand among industries like surveying, navigation, construction, mining, precision agriculture and scientific research that require greater positional accuracy, as well as continuity of data. Geophysicists, meteorologists, atmospheric and ionospheric scientists also leverage CORS data for a wide variety of applications. Other popular user groups include surveyors, GIS users, and engineers. And with continuously evolving GPS technology, CORS facilities will have an even greater role to play in the future.
What is stopping India from using CORS?
First things first, the International GNSS Service (IGS) — which operates a global network of GNSS ground stations, data centers, and data analysis centers to provide data and derived data products — has four base stations in India also. ISRO maintains that these are enough to meet our requirements. But industry insiders insist that while IGS might be enough for basic applications, projects that require very, very precise positioning information, such as engineering surveys, need augmented systems like CORS.
Which is why, the CORS network in the United States has almost 2,700 stations, and is growing at a rate of over 10 sites per month. Geoscience Australia cooperatively operates and maintains GNSS networks of approximately 100 CORS across the Australian region and the South Pacific. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia got its first CORS network in 2007. Nigeria has 15 CORS, and aims to install four more stations per year. And Pakistan has five stations in its Karachi CORS network.
It’s not that India doesn’t realize the value of having a GPS augmentation system. GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation or GAGAN, which has been developed by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Airports Authority of India (AAI) is one of the most advanced air navigation systems in the world. “Standard GPS measurements can at times be off the mark by a significant value, but GAGAN-enabled signals can be relied on all the time. That is why aircraft are using it,” ISRO Chairman AS Kiran Kumar has admitted in an interview.
If India can have GAGAN, why can we not have CORS? We posed this question to Former Program Director, SATNAV, ISRO and the man responsible for the successful implementation of GAGAN, Dr. SV Kibe. And he put the ball back into the Surveyor General‘s court. “The earth’s tectonic plates are continuously moving — enough to cause a difference of about 2-feet from the original location in 10 years’ time. Your remote sensing imageries, which are essentially a snapshot of a geographic reference at a given time, cannot take that into account. Only a Continuously Operating Reference Station can. If you keep working with old data, all your projections would be completely off. And if the Surveyor General cannot make the central government understand this, I’m not sure if he should continue to occupy his position.”
Dr. Kibe recalls the opposition GAGAN faced when it was first proposed to the government. “Everybody, including the DG Civil Aviation, went up in arms against me. And today, GAGAN has become a mandate for airlines. If you are not forceful, nothing will ever happen. The scientific community in India loves to fool itself,” he shrugs.
For Varadarajan Krish, Project Manager, GNSS.asia (India), a lot can be attributed to the preset notions of the Cold War era. “For eons, our governments have been used to wearing a garb of secrecy and being over cautious with its policies. This mindset needs to change. This issue needs to be raised to the Inter-Ministerial Group of Government of India, complete with facts, figures, data and examples of how other countries are benefitting from CORS technology.”
Narayana Rao T, Vice President Strategic Business Development, Accord Software & Systems, believes that the question and the answer both lie with the government. “The situation has improved a lot from earlier when getting digitized maps of a city was also a herculean task. However, there are still a lot of restrictions that the industry faces. Sure, there are sensitive areas about which the information cannot be released, but, what is the harm in making this technology available to the rest of India?”
After all, it’s time we keep up with the Joneses.