Eye In The Sky

A Silicon Valley start-up wants to launch 20 satellites to keep India safe

A company has plans to monitor weather, planes and ships using bottle-sized satellites.

The high seas remain the least watched and most treacherous parts of the planet. Danger comes in all forms, from bad weather and pirates to maritime boundary disputes. There is a need for more eyes and ears trained on the waters and the private sector is filling that space.

San Francisco-based remote-sensing company Spire is one such company trying to reduce disasters at sea, and its next stop is India. In the next 14 months, it wants to put a constellation of 20 nano-satellites in the lower earth orbit over India with the help of the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Nano-satellites, as the name suggests, are small satellites. They weigh less than 10 kg and are launched in lower earth orbits. This helps reduce the time they take to circle the planet. Where traditional satellites, circling some 30,000 km above, take several hours or even days to revisit a spot above the earth’s surface, nano-satellites, up at a distance of about 400 km, can take as little as 30 minutes. As a result, they can pick up signals like pings from a ship’s Automatic Identification System from a patch of ocean with greater frequency. They can check faster if a signal has disappeared, like when a pirate disables a ship’s communications, making it easier to close in on its possible location.

The same goes for airplanes flying over the earth’s oceans. “The unfortunate accident in the Pacific with the Malaysian Airlines flight (MH-370) is the kind of thing our constellation is built to prevent from,” said Peter Platzer, chief executive officer of Spire.

Nano-satellites can also give weather monitoring a boost, said Scott Hartley, venture capitalist and an advisor to Spire. The company will create data plans to which government and private agencies can subscribe.

A small and loaded spacecraft


Photo: Spire

A Spire satellite is made up of three units, each a 10 centimeter cube, which makes it no bigger than a wine bottle. The cubes carry an array of sensors – a magnetometer, accelerometer, gyroscope, infrared, optics, temperature and radiation gauges – all linked up to a microcontroller. The satellite has wing-like deployable solar panels that can emerge from its body to boost power production.

Spire has tied up with the Indian Space Research Organisation, which will put its constellation of 20 satellites into space, some on upcoming PSLV missions.

One PSLV rocket can carry between two and 20 nano-satellites. The PSLV-C23 launch in June this year carried five satellites into space, of which one was the German AISAT nano-satellite also designed for maritime vigil. PSLV-C20 in February 2013 put UK’s STRaND – a satellite weighing just 6.5 kg that comprises of a Google Nexus smartphone – into orbit.

Cheap and disposable

“A typical satellite can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and these nano-satellites cost about $100,000,” said Hartley. Launching nano-satellites from India costs even less.

“Any small satellite developer spends about $300,000-$500,000 for putting a 5 kg satellite in orbit,” estimated Sanjay Nekkanti, founder and CEO of Bangalore-based Dhruva Space. “For a similar satellite the cost is about 40% lower when we do it from India.” Dhruva Space has tied up with Spire to help the company set up its ground station operations in India.

Nano-satellites have a short shelf life of about 2 years. Orbiting low over the earth’s atmosphere, they are subject to its drag. As they descend into the atmosphere, they burn up, leaving behind no space debris.

Governmental push

In India so far, nano-satellites have been experimental spacecraft built and launched by university students aided by ISRO. IIT Kanpur’s Jugnu launched in 2011 was India’s first such venture. Jugnu, which was tracked for over 2 years, stopped giving out a signal only a few months ago. SRMSat, developed by students of SRM University in Chennai, was put into orbit to monitor water and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

While foreign companies like Spire are lining up to make nano-satellites commercial in India, M Loganathan, a retired ISRO scientist and project architect at SRM University, feels that unless national space agencies make a push to promote the technology it will not have any real-world application.

“A private company will find it tough to build operational systems in India,” Loganathan said. “In the United States, NASA is promoting the private industry to come up with rockets and satellites. That way the companies establish themselves and it becomes a profitable industry. In India it is not so. The government does not purchase the satellite.”

Spire, on the other hand, remains confident about its India plans and does not anticipate regulatory hurdles along the way. “By the summer of 2015, you will have almost our full constellation so you can expect our service products by then,” said Platzer.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.