India’s space industry, after drawing global attention for the thrifty innovations that propelled its Mars mission, is getting additional boost from an unlikely quarter: a handful of tiny startups with grand ambitions to revolutionise the sector.
Fledgling companies such as small-satellite developer Dhruva Space are already drawing attention as they prepare to develop and launch satellites for non-telecom commercial applications such as vehicle and flight tracking, disaster management, predictive analytics and imaging . Dhruva signed a collaboration with German company Berlin Space Technologies last week to establish India’s first factory for small satellites. It is expected to be operational later this year with capacity to manufacture 10-12 satellites annually.
Aerospace startup Axiom Research Labs’ Team Indus, the only Indian team competing in the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize competition, won a $1 million prize money in the ‘Landing Milestone’ category. XPrize has teams from 17 countries competing to land a robot on the moon by December 2016. And Aniara Space, which develops communications satellites for broadcasters, system integrators and governments, signed a satellite procurement agreement with the UK’s Dauria Aerospace in July to develop two small geostationary satellites.
The rise of private space enterprises globally was heralded by Californian company SpaceX’s 2012 launch of the first commercial rocket to visit the International Space Station. The global space industry was valued at $314.17 billion in 2013, according to international non-profit Space Foundation. India’s space sector is dominated by Isro, functioning directly under the Prime Minister’s Office, but experts say the country is poised to emerge as a key centre of space activity as more private startups take advantage of its ‘jugaad’ approach to innovation that marries effectiveness with cost-efficiency.
Case in point: Isro’s Mangalyaan mission to Mars cost about Rs 450 crore, around one-tenth of how much NASA spent on its 2013 Maven explorer that it sent to the planet.
“There will be a few hubs that will emerge globally within the private space ecosystem, and India will be one of them,” said Sharad Sharma, co-founder of software products think tank iSpirt and one of the first investors in Team Indus, which so far has received its first funding from investors and entrepreneurs. “India has the benefit of having experience in design-oriented manufacturing, embedded software, and aerospace – it’s a culmination of things that have come together to allow for private sector companies to come up.”
Abhishek Raju, director at Bengaluru-based Dhruva Space, estimates his company can manufacture a satellite weighing 10-100 kg for about Rs 3 crore. Isro on an average spends Rs 200-300 crore to develop a satellite. The two-year-old company, expects to launch its first satellite – a 12 kg communications satellite for AMSAT, the Indian arm of a global association of amateur radio operators – by the third quarter of this year. and is exploring partnerships with taxi aggregators,big data companies and IT giants to offer civilian and commercial applications.
So far, private space companies in India are restricted to supplying components and building engines and satellite launch vehicles for Isro or developing telecom satellites for commercial purposes. The startups are aiming higher, looking to both integrate and launch satellites, accomplishing what India’s space agency Isro has been doing since its inception in 1969 while also building sustainable businesses. That isn’t their biggest challenge.
“With the new probusiness government in Delhi, we are hopeful that we can put the spotlight on ‘space commerce’, not just ‘space diplomacy.”
A national legislative framework that defines space activities for public and private entities would also encourage more publicprivate partnerships – key for space startups, said Ram Jakhu, professor an d expert in space law and at McGill University, Canada. The space sector is capital-intensive, high-risk and returns on investments take a while, making the segment less attractive to most investors and thus requiring government investment and expenditure.
In the US, NASA allocates millions of dollars for small and medium enterprises to develop space technologies and in Europe, small companies are given access to funds and support from the European Space Agency and the European Union.
Even Hollywood has sniffed the trend in the sector and has graduated from the legendary Star Wars trilogies involving fictional characters to reallife human space adventures, with recent productions Gravity and Interstellar topping the charts. For now, much depends on the success of the first satellite launch by an Indian startup, key to gaining the trust of the government, investors, and customers. As Matthew McConaughey said in Interstellar, “We’re still pioneers, we’ve barely begun.”
Source : Defence News