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[NEW DELHI] Because it breeds deep inside forests, Anopheles dirus, a deadly species of malaria-carrying mosquito had been evading detection by regular ground surveys. So Aruna Srivastava and her colleagues at the Malaria Research Centre in New Delhi devised another approach to find them. 

Using images from India's remote sensing (IRS) satellites they mapped areas across the entire country where the species is likely to be found on the basis of its known behaviour and on ecological factors — such as temperature, humidity and altitude — conducive for its breeding and survival. Their model correctly predicted the exact breeding locations, which could then be selectively targeted for specific control measures.

Srivastava's study found that an estimated 50 million inhabitants were being exposed to this dangerous mosquito whose presence was in some cases unknown to health authorities until the satellite-aided study.

The technique used by Srivastava — overlaying geographical and other ground-based data on satellite derived maps to generate value added products — is the basis of a growing industry made possible by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in Bangalore.

Subba Rao holding up
Hyderabad's new map
Photo Credit: K. S. Jayaraman
"Until today, there had been no map of Hyderabad despite it being called a high-tech city," says Pavuluri Subba Rao, who left ISRO in the 1980s to found a company that turns the IRS imagery into a wide range of products with a myriad of applications. Next month he will present the mayor of Hyderabad with the first map of the city (see photo) showing every piece of property on every street — houses, schools hospitals, gas stations and even burial grounds.

"I anticipate two immediate benefits," Rao told SciDev.Net. "With every property digitised, the tax collection will go up. And I expect traffic congestion to ease because the map clearly shows where to build roads and flyovers." 

Rao says demand for the map is high from those wanting to do business in Hyderabad. Under a World Bank project, Rao's Hyderabad-based company — Indian Resources Information and Management Technologies Limited — is also preparing maps to show where industries should be allowed in the state's 18 districts in order to minimise impacts of pollution. 

"This information will be web-enabled, so an industrialist just has to browse the website to choose the location to build their plant," says Rao.

Today, ISRO's constellation of six IRS satellites – two more will be added next year is the world's biggest. Sale of its images worldwide generates US$6 million in revenue to Antrix Corporation, ISRO's commercial arm.

Within India, scientists have used the satellite pictures to combat deforestation, monitor desertification, predict crop yields, and even trace the course of an underground river in northwest India that some scientists say could be used to irrigate the Thar desert in Rajasthan. Satellites could also be used to assess how sedimentations reduce the storage capacity of reservoirs, affecting power generation.

According to ISRO, one major success has been the four to five-fold increase in fish catch as a result of daily forecasts for fishing zones based on ocean colour and sea surface temperature obtained from the 'Oceansat' satellite that ISRO launched in 1999.

A satellite-aided drinking water project has been extended nationwide following 90 per cent success among the 24,000 wells drilled so far. "This is the first time anywhere in the world where satellite images on a massive scale, in conjunction with limited field surveys, are being used to locate groundwater with high level of accuracy," says Dasika Prasad Rao, former director of the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) in Hyderabad.

"Producing a map of potential wells costs about Rs. 2,000 (US$45) for each village," says P.R. Reddy of NRSA who runs this mission.

Vasundhara Raje, a former minister of state for space revealed in 2003 that the benefit from remote sensing had "more than paid for the entire national space effort". More vital roles are envisaged for the IRS satellites in a proposed multi-million dollar project on linking India's rivers to solve the water crisis.

The remote sensing capability will get a further boost next year with the addition of two new satellites: Cartosat (with a spatial resolution of 2.5m) and Risat (that can see through clouds).

The results of four decades of efforts are quite impressive in other areas too. With more than 130 telephone exchanges in orbit, the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) system is one of the largest domestic communications systems in the Asia Pacific region. Thanks to INSAT, 90 per cent of Indians can watch television. Daily weather forecasts and disaster warnings are possible. And with production lines for two types of operational rockets, India is also carving a place in launch business. It has launched small satellites for Belgium, Germany and South Korea and has contracts to launch one for Singapore next year and an ultraviolet telescope for Israel in 2006. In 2007, India's ambitious moon probe will carry scientific payloads from Europe and the United States.

All this is achieved with an annual budget of Rs. 27 billion (US$600 million), three per cent of what US space agency NASA spends each year. "We have kept our programme cost-effective by keeping away from money-eating projects like putting a person in space," says Gopalan Madhavan Nair, chairman of ISRO.

How INSAT saved lives when the Orissa cyclone struck

If it wasn't for INSAT-2C, the 'super-cyclone' that hit the Orissa coast on 29 October 1999 could have been a major tragedy. Tracking the cyclone every half hour from 26 October, INSAT-2C identified the areas that needed to be evacuated. After the hit, it helped the relief operation by establishing communication between relief workers in the field and officials in New Delhi and Bubaneshwar (Orissa's state capital) via a network of transportable terminals, and bringing to relief workers the constantly updated satellite-derived maps showing flooded areas prepared by the National Remote Sensing Agency in Hyderabad. The Air Force used the maps to drop food and other essential materials and the health officials used them to take steps to prevent water borne epidemics.

"The Indian space programme is not intended to compete with others," Nair told SciDev.Net. "We have our own agenda. It is tuned towards achieving self-reliance and using space technology for national development in health, education, and agriculture."    

In September this year, ISRO achieved a world first, launching the educational tool Edusat that links 5,000 schools and colleges in five states (see India's 'teacher in the sky'). Edusat will eventually expand into a nationwide space-based educational service.  

And what started as a pilot telemedicine project in 2001 — bringing health care to the rural areas via satellite — now links 50 remote hospitals to centres specialising in areas such as cardiology, neurology and organ transplants in cities.

"In 2003 alone there were 12,000 teleconsultations," says Nair who expects the present telemedicine network to serve as a model for a future dedicated health satellite.

Nair says his desire is to combine the communication capabilities of INSAT with the information derived from earth observation satellites. This, he believes, will help establish information 'kiosks' across India providing on-line advisory services to farmers and the general public on topics such as land records, well sites, water harvesting and rural employment.

The first such Village Resource Centre — a joint effort of ISRO and Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation — was inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 18 October. Another 25 centres are to be set up soon under an agreement signed on 5 November between ISRO and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, an educational trust in Kochi, Kerala.

From the firing of three-inch thick 'toy' rockets in 1963 to the launch of a 414-tonne geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV), it has been a gruelling journey for ISRO. The hurdles of technology denials and embargos enforced by the United States following India's 1998 nuclear bomb test, were "in a way a blessing," says former chairman of ISRO Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan. 

In 1992, when, under US pressure, Russia refused to transfer the technology for a cryogenic engine for the GSLV, ISRO decided to develop the technology itself. The GSLV's next flight will be powered by the Indian engine. Kasturirangan proudly says that optics used in one of ISRO satellites to obtain images of one-metre resolution (useful for the military) was "totally indigenously built".

Although national development is its motto, ISRO is looking ahead in terms of newer technologies. "We are working on a two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle with recoverable and reusable features," says Nair.

"At present, there is no need for a manned space flight for India but I cannot rule out such a possibility in the future." A recoverable satellite that ISRO plans to send in 2006 could pave way for future manned space flights.

When ISRO carried its first communications satellite APPLE on a bullock cart, sceptics asked why a poor country like India needed satellites. In fact, this stands as a testament to the determination of a nation that, in spite of its relative lack of resources, aspired to lift the country to new heights by harnessing space technology.
Yagnaswami Sundararajan, who was closely associated with ISRO in the early years, and is now principal adviser to the Confederation of Indian Industry in New Delhi, says he is happy that ISRO is now a mature agency. "However, I would like to see that a major global space company even as a joint venture emerge based on ISRO's foundations and compete globally for space products and services". That day may not be far off.