On Friday, India set up all the pieces for its very own satellite navigation technology. Using its workhorse rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV, ISRO put the seventh satellite of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System into orbit and promptly renamed the system Navigation with Indian Constellation or NAVIC.
Three of the satellites are in geostationary orbits, which are circular orbits that keep the satellites at the same distance from the earth at all times and appear at the same place in the sky. The other four satellites are in geosynchronous orbits, which are elliptical orbits at an angle to the earth’s axis. The seven-satellites system hovering over India are supposed to provide navigational accuracy of up to 20 meters for the whole subcontinent up to about 1,500 kilometers from the Indian borders covering the member countries of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation.
With this latest achievement, India joins a small group of countries that have or are building their own satellite navigation capabilities – US, EU, Russia, China and Japan. India has so far been dependent on the US’ Global Positioning System, better known by its acronym GPS. That’s the technology that we all use when we open Google Maps, that we rely on for Uber cabs to find us, to whose safety we surrender to while taking a flight. Very simply, a satellite navigation system allows us to pinpoint the locations of objects, people and goods at any given moment and keeps updating that information in real time.
The big deal over NAVIC is that it has the potential to provide greater accuracy and precision in navigation and also the independence to control its navigation systems. “So when you are using the satellite navigation of a foreign country, you depend on the relation with that country,” said Balakista Reddy, registrar of the NALSAR University of Law and head of its Centre for Air and Space Law. “There are also issues related to privacy and security concerns. They supply [navigation capabilities] free of cost and when they supply free of cost they are under no contractual obligation and at any moment they can withdraw services.”
The impetus for the project is said to have originated in the Kargil war in 1999, when the US denied India vital satellite information, making clear the need for an indigenous system. “There is no official confirmation of this Kargil story that has been making rounds for some time now,” said Ajey Lele, senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. “But as far as the armed forces are concerned, whether the GPS is allowing them access or not, they definitely require their own navigation system which is more accurate.”
The GPS signal that is made freely available for users across the world is a slightly degraded signal in terms of accuracy, explained Lele. A normal GPS signal may not help find a target with great accuracy. India is also a geographically challenging region with varied topography and vegetation. India’s own system will help focus on the specific conditions in the subcontinent resulting in better accuracy.
NAVIC is supposed to enhance both civilian and military navigation capability by providing two kinds of services. The Standard Positioning Service is for the former with accuracy of up to 20 meters and the Restricted Positioning will be for military use that will be zero in on terrestrial objects with an accuracy of 10 meters.
There are innumerable civilian uses for a satellite navigation system from transport, aviation and shipping to animal conservation using GPS tagging to disaster management by facilitating surveys and rescues in disaster-hit areas.
“The range of potential uses for GNSS is enormous, spanning many sectors, both public and private, from precision agriculture to construction, transport and logistics to tourism, fisheries to environmental protection, and many more,” wrote Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and CEO of the space start up Earth2Orbit, in an email to Scroll.in.
So, what does the latest feather in ISRO’s cap mean for private space ventures and the space exploration ecosystem in India? Mohanty sees many synergies in space research. “With ISRO’s GNSS system in place, space start-ups and existing companies could explore new integrated applications that combine communication, earth observation and navigation capabilities,” she said. “But for those ideas to succeed, not only do we need to have assets up in space, we also need to liberalise our regulatory environment, cut red tape and provide streamlined funding mechanisms.”