Orbital correction

Beginning 1975, ISRO has been involved in several indigenous space utilisation initiatives. We take a close look at two of them, Edusat and the IRS programme, to evaluate their efficacy

Published: Thursday 30 June 2005

Orbital correction

Pre-launch preparations:  Edus Launched in September 2004, Edusat is perhaps the world's only satellite fully dedicated to distance education. Edusat moves in a geo-synchronous orbit. Its 12 transponders (six in k u band and six in extended c band) provide five spot beams (see Glossary), each covering a specific region, and seven national beams covering the whole country.

Edusat is meant to transmit education programmes for students of primary, secondary and higher level institutions even in far-flung areas through 1,25,000 to 1,50,000 terminals. The content for the project is to be created by 20 nodal agencies such as the Indira Gandhi National Open University (ignou), the All India Council of Technical Education (aicte), national institutes/universities and state education departments.

The project has been bandied about as a vehicle to universalise education. But even after almost a year of its existence, it is severely underexploited, according to an official estimate. Barely 35 per cent of the national beam and around 30 per cent of regional beams are being utilised, s ays B S Bhatia, director of the Ahmedabad-based Development and Educational Communication Unit (decu). He hopes capacity utilisation will jump to 50 per cent in four to five months. But even that appears unlikely. According to a source associated with an educational institution developing programmes for Edusat, only two universities -- the Anna University in Chennai and the Goa University in Goa -- are providing daily uplinks on the national beams. While Anna University airs programmes for five to six hours every day, Goa University broadcasts just for one hour a day. But Edusat can actually support dozens of digital channels!

Considering that Edusat has a life span of seven years, it is sad there are so few programmes available, said a source on condition of anonymity. And that too, after the government invested at least Rs 330 crore in the project. While the plan for launching an exclusive educational satellite was taken at least seven years ago, why wasn't content generation also rigorously planned, he wondered. The first meeting of agencies involved in producing content for Edusat was organised only two months before the launch.

Early start
India's involvement with satellite-based distance education dates back to 1975, when it launched a Satellite Instructional Teaching Experiment (site) programme using a us satellite. decu, set up as part of the site programme, continues to carry out similar experiments in developmental communications.

Before launching Edusat, a pilot project was started using Insat-3 b at three universities -- the Visvesvaraya Technological University (vtu), Belgaum, in Karnataka, the Yashwantrao Maharashtra Open University, Nasik, in Maharashtra and the Rajiv Gandhi Technological University, in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

But the experience gained does not show up in the way the Edusat project is being implemented. Sources at ignou and aicte say their broadcasts will not be ready at least for a few more months. Even if they deliver as they promise, how much of the shortfall can be made up?

Another area of concern is ground facilities, or receiving terminals. For instance, out of 123 terminals that ignou plans to establish, about 85 have been set up so far, says Rakesh Sharma, engineer-in-charge, ignou. The ignou network will be ready by July-August this year, he adds. Similarly, aicte was to set up 100 receiving stations, but the process has just begun. So is the case with most other content providers such as the Indian Institutes of Management (iim).

However, some academics are upbeat about Edusat . vtu vice-chancellor K Balveera Reddy says, "Edusat will be very beneficial considering the shortage of teachers, especially in frontier areas of technology."

S Chandrasekhar of iim Bangalore, says Edusat is an attempt worthy of praise. "The challenges that such satellite-based education programmes offer are tremendous." But he feels such virtual classrooms cannot be a substitute for conventional teaching. At the most they can be complementary.

Rural link
Edusat is the third in a series of satellites called Gramsat, or g sat, intended to improve rural communication and connectivity. The first in the series, g sat-1, was launched in 2001, but failed. g sat-2, launched in 2003, is being used to take forward the Training and Development Communication Channel (tdcc), a one-way video and two-way audio teleconferencing network that isro initiated in 1995.

tdcc broadcasts were started in Jabua, Madhya Pradesh, in 1996 with programmes on health, education, nutrition as well as news in regional language. These telecasts are available to most villages in Jhabua and two neighbouring districts.

In July 2004, tdcc transmission started for villages in Orissa following the setting up of a v-sat based network using g sat-2. Subsequently, tdcc was upgraded as Gramsat with the inclusion of several new components such as e-governance, data connectivity, natural resource imaging system and disaster management systems at the village level. "In Orissa, it (tdcc) is now connected to 314 blocks of Orissa, and 885 villages in the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region. Programmes are run on agriculture and health,'' says Bhatia.

Two other states that have similar programmes, albeit in a limited manner, are Gujarat and Karnataka. isro is scheduled to launch an exclusive satellite for telemedicine, g sat-4, in 2006-2007.

In 1996 Saraswati Sugars, a reputed sugar mill in Yamunanagar, Haryana, approached the Hyderabad-based National Remote Sensing Agency (nrsa) for satellite imageries. The sugar mill wanted to use remote sensing data to check the sugar content in the cane grown in farms around its premises to decide the best time for harvesting. This was achieved by superimposing nrsa data with maps of the locality procured from the Survey of India.

The mill found the maps useful enough to continue procuring four to five maps from nrsa annually, paying Rs 25,000 for each image. The technique has been very effective, according to Kripal Singh, a manager in the mill's cane department.

Saraswati Sugars is among a growing group of users of remote sensing data in India. It includes scientists who have used satellite maps to detect a deadly mosquito species Anopheles dirus in forests to makers of city maps.

isro claims that the irs programme led to a four-fold increase in the fish catch that occurred after the 1999 launch of Oceansat, a remote sensing satellite dedicated to gathering ocean data.

The beginning
India's efforts in remote sensing took off when isro launched irs-1 a -- the first in the irs series -- using a Russian launch vehicle on May 17, 1988. By 1994, India had developed its own satellite launch capability. Currently, India has seven irs satellites in orbit, making its constellation of civil remote sensing satellites the world's biggest.

irs data accounts for 15 per cent share of the global remote sensing data, says isro chairperson Madhavan Nair. Its ground stations are spread over more than 20 countries including Australia, Canada and Germany. A us firm, Space Imaging, sells irs data in several countries. The data is popular abroad because it is as good as that provided by satellites launched by Western countries, but cheaper, says Chandrasekhar of iim, Bangalore. But what India needs to do, according to him, is go for a good branding for irs data.

Nearly 200 small, largely entrepreneur-driven industries in India are involved in satellite imagery data processing using irs data. Typically, they buy data from nrsa, which is a part of isro, add value to it and sell it to clients worldwide.

But within India, remote sensing data remains underutilised among potential end-users. "We are notoriously slow in adopting new technologies," says Chandrasekhar. Another problem is the archaic security regulations that debar ordinary people in India from using such data. While maps of up to 1 metre resolution for several Indian cities can be easily downloaded from external sources, the labyrinth of Indian rules discourage several users from accessing such maps produced within the country. "These people (the authorities) have to grow up and need to look for better ways for ensuring national security rather than blocking the usage of a useful tool," said one scientist.

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