More bang for the buck: On why ISRO should go commercial

ISRO should collaborate with the private sector to aid high-technology manufacturing

November 28, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 11:10 am IST

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s successful launch on Wednesday of Cartosat-3, along with 13 other small U.S. satellites, marks a major technological milestone for India. Cartosat-3 is capable of unprecedented image resolution of nearly 25 cm on the ground as against the best global military-grade satellites that can provide a 10 cm resolution. The best satellite images commercially available are between 25-30 cm. Thus, as a commercial satellite, Cartosat-3 creates a wealth of applications. Military espionage is the lowest hanging fruit. It is believed that surveillance by the earlier Cartosat-2 satellite series — with a resolution, though coarser, of about 65 cm — was used to plan and execute military operations such as ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of Control in 2016 and the Manipur-Myanmar border in 2015. For the government, such resolution can help monitor progress of road construction, coastal land-erosion, forest conservation, oceanic changes and infrastructure development. Image resolution is good to have but secondary to image processing. That means unless and until there is sophisticated technology available to analyse the generated images, it will forever be inferior, and less valued, than coarser images scanned by better processing-software.

While satellite launches make for a good spectacle, they are meaningful only in so far as they aid commerce and generate revenue and jobs. Indian regulations restrict access to satellite images sharper than one metre to the government. Other than for transponders, there is a long way to go for Indian private companies sending innovative payloads aboard ISRO launch vehicles. ISRO recently launched a company called New Space India Limited (NSIL), a competitor to Antrix, but like it, is another public enterprise meant to commercialise space products and satellite development deals with private entities. The deal for the U.S. satellites launched along with Cartosat-3 was formally inked by the NSIL. A good beginning, it should not be shackled by bureaucratic encumbrances, à la Antrix. The host of interesting electronics aboard Cartosat-3 should ideally inspire ISRO to explore collaboration with the private sector in improving high-technology manufacturing. While ISRO’s key capability still lies in developing and launching small- and medium-sized satellites, it ought to be able to market the technology aboard Cartosat-3 globally and induce the farming out of satellite development projects to ISRO or its subsidiaries. While ISRO’s credentials as a poster child for India’s technological abilities have been fortified, it still has a long way to go in terms of its reputation as an enabler of local business.

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