ISRO and UN SDGs – A Short Critique

Let’s look at some numbers around ISRO’s popular Tele‐education, Tele‐medicine, Village Resource Centre and Disaster Management System Programmes. Do go through this post for a table that maps the major national projects/initiatives of ISRO to UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The multitude of initiatives and programmes that ISRO has undertaken towards social development are commendable given the meager budget for the Indian Space program of about $1.4 B for the year 2017-2018 which accounts for less than 0.06% of the country’s GDP.

The biggest benefactors of ISRO’s various socio-economic programmes will be the rural and remote populace who cannot otherwise have access to these facilities. This has been achieved through their Village Resource Centres (VRCs) with assistance from NGOs/, Trusts and state & central agencies for taking telemedicine, Tele-education, Panchayat Planning, Vocational Training, Weather Information, Marketing information, Drinking water facilities, Watershed development to the rural populations. The 461 VRC nodes set up in 22 States/Union Territories include 81 Expert Centres. 6500 programmes have been conducted addressing areas such as Agriculture/horticulture development, Fisheries development, Livestock development, Water resources, Telehealthcare, Awareness programmes, Woman’s empowerment, Supplementary education, Computer literacy, Microcredit, Microfinance, Skill development/vocational training for livelihood support and were used by over 500,000 people so far.

As per the press notes released by the Planning Commission of India in 2013, there are about 269.3 million poor people in the country according to the survey it conducted during 2011-2012 of which 216.5 million are from the rural and 52.8 million from urban areas. Assuming that the 500,000 users of the Village Resource Centers of ISRO belonged to the poor sections, only 0.23% of the urban poor had ever accessed the space-based services. Moreover, there are no clear metrics on what percentage of this 500,000 users have continued using the space-based tools and services for upgrading their lives. Similarly, the telemedicine network of ISRO covers about 384 hospitals with 60 specialty hospitals connected to 306 remote/rural/district/medical college hospitals and 18 Mobile Telemedicine units. As per the Open Government Data (OGD) Platform of India metrics of 2013, there are 35,416 government hospitals in the country, of which 26,604 are in rural and 8812 in urban areas. Again, the penetration is less than 1.5%. More importantly, given mobile coverage slowly reaching the rural and remote locations, these tele-education and telemedicine initiatives require better infrastructure in the form of large projection screens and monitors than simple connectivity, given the global trend of moving towards knowledge economies.

Major Limitations

The biggest limitation to the otherwise successful and meticulously planned space application programmes of ISRO is the inability to reach out to the majority of the population that actually needs these services and benefits. Though the drafting of these programmes, some of which had begun six decades ago, has been exceptionally visionary in anticipating the benefits of space technology, the existing implementation methods of operating primarily under the control of the Department of Space, are preventing them from scaling to the entire population.

The shortcomings of the ISRO originated implementation method can be especially sensed in the area of Earth Observation. Though acquisition and basic processing of satellite data is more or less automated, deduction of meaningful information from parsing satellite imagery for understanding climate and weather, monitoring natural resources, planning of developmental activities and assistance towards good governance requires intensive analytics. Performing data analytics and image analytics is a highly customized exercise and is manpower intensive for developing the task-specific algorithms. For instance, the two ISRO applications of identifying heritage sites and urban planning can be accomplished using the same high-resolution satellite imagery. However, the analytics algorithms developed for one project cannot be used for the other.

In spite of participation from several local administrative bodies, NGOs and trusts, the methods of engagement and service dissemination have been largely traditional. For instance, the tele-education program does not take into account the extensive repository of free online education material in the form of videos, lectures, exercises and even complete courses from primary to university level education. Instead, the components of the existing tele-education network connecting 59,700 schools (of the 15,16,865 schools and 38,498 colleges in the country) are receive-only and interactive classroom terminals with content such as lectures, training, lab sessions, databases being generated mostly within the network, though have a thoughtful feature of catering to users with special requirements. Similarly, the telemedicine initiatives also do not provide access to globally available resources but are restricted to their limited network. Therefore the second limitation of these space application base social programmes is the lack of integration with modern day technology and resources. OECD, 2012, OECD Handbook on Measuring the Space Economy, Paris, DOI: 10.1787/9789264169166-en

Possible Solutions

Solving the first limitation of scale and increasing the penetration of space technology tools can be achieved through recruiting more dedicated personnel to achieve wider penetration of the space technology services. However, this results in a large financial burden on the exchequer. An optimal solution is when the same mass penetration can be achieved through a commercial player ecosystem that reaps benefits while taking these space technology tools to the remotest populations. Inviting participation from startups in the fields of education, healthcare, social entrepreneurship ventures would give the required innovation momentum to the utilization of space technology tools in sustainable development and also solve the second problem of outdated content and implementation methodologies. However, in order for these efforts to make a convincing business case for these space applications disseminating companies, the space technologies, and services themselves should be available at an affordable cost. This, in turn, can be achieved by a thriving SME eco-system on both the upstream as well as downstream space sectors that would integrate space-based products/services into traditional industries such as energy, agriculture, retail, transport, internet/connectivity, etc. This dynamic integration precisely forms one of the strong pillars of NewSpace companies.

Moreover, NewSpace companies are planning to pick up the buck where traditional space companies have flattened in technology and growth. For example, there is a whole new ecosystem of Earth Observation (EO) downstream applications ventures that want to go beyond traditional Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) but using satellite data with ground-based sensors in creating data stacks that can add specific industry and decision intelligence to an array of industries.

A thriving newspace ecosystem would by itself cater to supplying the necessary space technology tools and services for sustainable development in the areas of climate change, disaster management, urban planning, resources monitoring, natural resource conservation while indirectly aiding large-scale dissemination of space technology-based tools and services in the areas of education, healthcare, poverty eradication, economic growth, sustainable practices.

Mapping ISRO’s Projects to UN Sustainable Development Goals

For a background on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the role of space technology in their achievement, refer this article.

The Indian Space Program had always focused on missions that would directly impact the common man. Currently, ISRO’s (Indian Space Research Organisation) Satellite Communication supports initiatives such as Tele‐education, Tele‐medicine, Village Resource Centre and Disaster Management System Programmes. The Indian Remote Sensing program provides key information to the government for ensuring food security, environment sustenance, natural resource management, disaster management among others. Additionally, it developed indigenous systems for ground-based monitoring measurement of weather parameters, such as Automatic Weather Station, Agro Metrological (AGROMET), Flux Tower, Doppler Weather Rada, GPS Sonde and Boundary Layer LIDAR.

The following table maps the major national projects/initiatives of ISRO to UN SDGs.

UN SDG ISRO Programme Space Technology Used Benefits
#1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere Village Resource Centre (VRC) Satellite communication, imagery, positioning, meterological data 461 VRCs set up in 22 States/Union Territories and over 6500 programmes conducted addressing areas of Agriculture/horticulture development; Fisheries development; Live stock development; Water resources; Tele health care; Awareness programmes; Woman’s empowerment; Supplementary education; Computer literacy; Micro credit; Micro finance; Skill development / vocational training for livelihood support etc.
#2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture  

Agro Metrological (AGROMET)

 

ground based sensors with satellite meteorological data

 

Towers to measure soil temperature, soil moisture, soil heat and net radiation, wind speed, wind direction, pressure and humidity

Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP) High resolution satellite imagery Ground reality is captured. Time stamping of Irrigation Infrastructure. Identification of critical gaps. Prioritisation of works. Compliance monitoring. Effective project implementation. Irrigation Potential Creation assessment
Coordinated programme on Horticulture Assessment & Management using geoinformatics (CHAMAN) medium resolution widefield multi-spectral and high resolution satellite imagery Horticultural policy decision on crop monitoring, domestic needs, pricing, processing, import/export, planning cold storage & agro-processing units. Planning for expansion and development. Support for crop insurance schemes. Crop intensification and diversification
#3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages Tele-Medicine satellite communication, VSAT terminals  

Improved connectivity in remote and rural areas for healthcare services with access to Super-Specialist hospitals. Significant cost savings. Timely advice to save lives·Continuing Medical Education (CME) for Doctors, Medical Students and training to rural healthcare providers. Support to disaster relief

#4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all Tele-Education satellite communication, VSAT terminals Supplementing curriculum-based teaching. Effective teachers’ training. Access to quality resource persons and education. Taking education to every nook and corner of the country. About 15 million students get benefitted every year
#5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls Village Resource Centre (VRC) Satellite communication, imagery, positioning, meterological data 461 VRCs set up in 22 States/Union Territories and over 6500 programmes conducted addressing areas of Agriculture/horticulture development; Fisheries development; Live stock development; Water resources; Tele health care; Awareness programmes; Woman’s empowerment; Supplementary education; Computer literacy; Micro credit; Micro finance; Skill development / vocational training for livelihood support etc.
#6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all Integrated Watershed Management Project (IWMP High spatial and temporal resolution satellite imagery   Uniform evaluation of watershed development programme across the country using ortho-rectified highresolution satellite image database. Open source mapper tools for creation of future action plans using legacy/ multi-thematic layers. Prioritisation of target areas at national level and modeling of processes
Agro Metrological (AGROMET) ground based sensors with satellite meteorological data Towers to measure soil temperature, soil moisture, soil heat and net radiation, wind speed, wind direction, pressure and humidity
#7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all Smart Cities  high resolution and medium resolution multispectral satellite imagery  Existing Land use and infrastructure, Planning of City, Geospatial Governance for city good governance and civic services, Monitoring and enforcement, Real time city data analytics  
#8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all PFZ (Potential Fishing Zones) – Finding Fishes From Space coarse resolution multi-spectral satellite imagery, satellite positioning   

Direct benefit to society. Reduced search time, fuel cost and efforts. Increase in profi. Improved socio-economic status of fishermen community. 67% success rate in PFZ. Increase in Benefit-cost ratio (Non-PFZ to PFZ) – 1.27 to 2.12 for trawling & 1.3 to 2.14 for gillnetting 

#9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation  

Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) and GAGAN (GPS Aided and GEO Augmented Navigation)

satellite communication, satellite positioning  Indigenous positioning service over the Indian Sub-continent 
 #10: Reduce inequality within and among countries GSAT-9 South Asia Satellite (Refer page 6) satellite communication   support communication, broadcasting and Internet services, disaster management, tele-medicine, tele-education, weather forecasting for Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, The Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka 
 #11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable Space Based Information Support for Decentralized Planning High resolution multispectral satellite imagery Single Window interface for Decentralised Planning process at all three levels. Accessibility of portal to common citizen for effective participation in planning process. Accessibility of Climate data at Panchayat level. Automatic Report Generation covering various socio-economic, demographic, natural, climate and infrastructure information. Effective for decision making at Panchayat level under e-Governance 
Satcom based Disaster Management Support  satellite communication, VSAT terminals  Low-cost terminal to support search & rescue operations for fishermen; Providing meteorological sensor data collection for weather prediction; In-situ data collection and reporting for calibration and validation of sensors
Distress Alert & Early Warning satellite communication, VSAT terminals, satellite positioning  
Conservation of heritage sites high resolution satellite imagery Inventory of world heritage sites and nationally important monuments in the country and generation of Geo-spatial database using high resolution satellite data; Predictive Locational Modeling for siting prospective archaeological locations 
Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT)
high resolution and medium resolution multispectral satellite imagery  GIS Based Master Plan, Water Supply Systems, Sewerage, Septage, Storm Water Drainage, Urban Transport, Green Space and Parks, Reforms management & support, Capacity Building  
Smart Cities 
high resolution and medium resolution multispectral satellite imagery Existing Land use and infrastructure, Planning of City, Geospatial Governance for city good governance and civic services, Monitoring and enforcement, Real time city data analytics
#12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP)
High resolution satellite imagery Ground reality is captured. Time stamping of Irrigation Infrastructure. Identification of critical gaps. Prioritisation of works. Compliance monitoring. Effective project implementation. Irrigation Potential Creation assessment
#13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts Climate change Research In Terrestrial environment (PRACRITI) coarse and medium resolution multispectral satellite imagery Modeling Eco-hydrology of India and Impact of Climate Change; Alpine ecosystem dynamics and impact of climate change in Indian Himalaya; Bio-physical Characterization and Site Suitability Analysis for Indian Mangroves; Impact of Global Changes on Marine Ecosystems with special emphasis on Coral Reefs; Investigations of Indian monsoon teleconnection with the polar environment processes
Automatic Weather Station (AWS) satellite meteorological sensors to providing hourly information on critical weather parameters such as pressure, temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind and radiation from remote and inaccessible areas
Space Based Information Support for Decentralized Planning High resolution multispectral satellite imagery Single Window interface for Decentralised Planning process at all three levels. Accessibility of portal to common citizen for effective participation in planning process. Accessibility of Climate data at Panchayat level. Automatic Report Generation covering various socio-economic, demographic, natural, climate and infrastructure information. Effective for decision making at Panchayat level under e-Governance
#14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources PFZ (Potential Fishing Zones) – Finding Fishes From Space coarse resolution multi-spectral satellite imagery, satellite positioning   Direct benefit to society. Reduced search time, fuel cost and efforts. Increase in profi. Improved socio-economic status of fishermen community. 67% success rate in PFZ. Increase in Benefit-cost ratio (Non-PFZ to PFZ) – 1.27 to 2.12 for trawling & 1.3 to 2.14 for gillnetting
#15: Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss Integrated Watershed Management Project (IWMP High spatial and temporal resolution satellite imagery Uniform evaluation of watershed development programme across the country using ortho-rectified highresolution satellite image database. Open source mapper tools for creation of future action plans using legacy/ multi-thematic layers. Prioritisation of target areas at national level and modeling of processes
#16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies Space Based Information Support for Decentralized Planning High resolution multispectral satellite imagery Single Window interface for Decentralised Planning process at all three levels. Accessibility of portal to common citizen for effective participation in planning process. Accessibility of Climate data at Panchayat level. Automatic Report Generation covering various socio-economic, demographic, natural, climate and infrastructure information. Effective for decision making at Panchayat level under e-Governance
#17: Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development GSAT-9 South Asia Satellite (Refer page 6) satellite communication support communication, broadcasting and Internet services, disaster management, tele-medicine, tele-education, weather forecasting for Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, The Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka

It is evident that ISRO’s national programmes are all designed to aid the government in achieving the development goals by 2030. However, the complete potential of ISRO’s technological prowess and dedication are yet to be unleashed. There is much that can be done in the design as well as implementation of these impressive national missions. My next articles will attempt a critical analysis on the ISRO approach to UN SDGs and suggest possible and feasible solutions suitable for the current Indian space scene.

UN Sustainable Development Goals – Role of Space Technology

Introduction – United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015, the 193 member states of the United Nations have adopted a set of 17 goals each comprising specific targets to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change. They are referred to as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the member states are expected to formulate their national policies towards achieving these goals over the next 15 years. Also, a global indicator framework for the SDGs was announced in March 2017 1 . The UN SDGs were based on the earlier set of goals known as Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the UN in 2000 and expired in 2015.

While the MDGs also addressed poverty & hunger, universal education, combating diseases, child mortality, maternal health, gender equality, environmental sustainability, global partnerships, the SDGs appear to be superior to their predecessors on several fronts. Given the involvement of middle and low income countries in the international negotiations during their formulation, the SDGs are more universal applying to all countries. Through initiatives such as UN Global Compact and Impact2030, the private sector can greatly contribute towards global development. The SDGs can be a powerful tool for the United Nations in spreading awareness on poverty, inequality, sustainability, discrimination and think as global citizens. Moreover, the indicator framework has the potential to create opportunities to engage and participate in governance at local levels.

The 17 global development goals and their 169 targets are more or less interdependent and can only be pursued together with improvement in one area depending largely on progress in several other areas. For instance, poverty cannot be eradicated without significant progress in the fields of education, health care and reduction of inequalities. Climate change can only be combated via conservation and sustainable use of oceans, land, clean energy and responsible consumption and production techniques.

The wide agenda of the SDGs requires participation from all global actors who need to formulate appropriate policies at their national levels while also engaging their population at local and regional levels. Formulation of policies, implementation of necessary actions and assessment of progress in this global endeavour requires historical and accurate real-time data as well as infrastructure which space technology tools such as satellite imagery, satellite communication, satellite navigation and positioning, satellite based weather data can uniquely provide.

Role of Space Technology

The majority of the developing and underdeveloped countries, which have the greatest need for sustainable development, have large populations. This places a great complexity in both formulation and implementation of national policies towards sustainable development. The making of policies would require the most accurate information on the existing state of affairs, such as levels of poverty, land use, local climate, etc. Effective implementation would require real-time statistics on the measures taken. However, most important towards realisation of the UN SDGs is empowering the unaware and underprivileged population with access to all such information, at a personal as well as the community level. They should have access to the benefits being provided to them, the policies being chalked out and the metrics on the aid being offered.

Education and awareness are the most important tools of empowerment, in addition to providing access to information. Education, awareness, access – all require being connected to the rest of the world and amongst themselves. This global connectivity in turns requires vast infrastructure which space technology can offer most effectively – in terms of both cost and ease of establishment.

Earth observation satellite constellations have the potential to provide real-time images of the globe. Sub-meter and high spatial resolution imagery can help in urban planning, monitoring of urban land abuse, detection and tracking. Medium resolution imagery can aid in agricultural land mapping, land use, monitoring of lakes & water bodies. Coarse resolution images help in climate monitoring, disaster management and mitigation.

The satellite communications sectors with the VSAT terminals can take broadband access and thereby connectivity to the remotest locations. High Throughput Satellites now have upwards of 200 Gbps throughput. This can also greatly aid in providing education to even the remote locations and help in medical supervision by expert doctors wherever there is a shortage of specialists.

The applications of remote sensing and satcom are greatly aided by the satellite positioning and navigation services.