Union Budget: Digital public infrastructure for EO; democratizing access to space technology

India’s space odyssey, once a beacon of audacious ambition, has matured into a robust ecosystem and is now in the precipice of its next stage of evolution through the ‘NewSpace’ era. Earth observation – gathering earth’s physical, chemical, and biological information through satellites – has not only been an integral part of this journey but has often been its critical propellant at various stages.
Use of earth observation data and applications for mitigating critical governance and business challenges can be traced to the very genesis of India’s space programme; the success of the pilot to use remote sensing to identify coconut root-wilt disease in Kerala in 1970 paved way for the development of Indian Remote Sensing satellite series. Over the last five decades, India’s end-end capabilities across the value chain of earth observation have grown manifold to enable use of earth observation data and applications in critical sectors viz., agriculture and fisheries development, disaster management, biodiversity conservation, natural resources extraction and exploration etc.
Today, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) stands tall as a global leader in earth observation. Add to it, the array of new-age space start-ups at varying technology readiness levels on hyperspectral, multi-sensor (optical + synthetic aperture radar), radio frequency sensors, India’s capabilities in earth observation are set to be further buttressed where earth observation data and applications can become the lifeblood of informed decision-making for a whole gamut of industries in a geographically diverse country like India with complex environmental challenges.
Despite the giant strides made, it is imperative to note that full realisation of value from earth observation for business and governance has been challenging. There are several challenges including timely availability and accessibility to images of desired spectral, spatial, and temporal resolution, cost of images, nature of business models, policy and regulatory challenges, technical capabilities of end-users etc. which has hindered adoption and utilisation of earth observation-based applications at scale.
To mitigate the challenges and to set the vision for India, Government of India through the Indian Space Policy, 2023 and the National Geospatial Policy, 2022, has envisioned a self-reliant India enabled by private and public sector to service both domestic and global demand in geospatial data and information. Indian Space Policy, 2023 makes ISRO’s earth observation data with GSD > 5 m on free and open basis for everyone and GSD < 5 m to be made available to private entities in a fair and transparent manner and free of charge to government entities.
Given the above and the evolving global landscape of earth observation where image generation of desired resolutions may no longer be a significant technological challenge, it is extremely important to identify critical enablers that can help mainstream adoption. Here’s where the concept of Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) for Earth Observation has the potential to be a game-changer.
Just like highways and public grids unlocked access to transportation and electricity for everyone, the upcoming budget could democratize access to EO data through investments in DPI. In other words, a DPI for EO can be a national repository of openly accessible EO data fetched from various sources as per requirements which are also analytics-ready and instantly available to researchers, entrepreneurs, and even local communities. This readily available data, coupled with user-friendly platforms and analytical tools, can empower a new generation of innovators to develop solutions. It can allow innovators and entrepreneurs to focus their attention on building products that can provide insights that are easily discernible and actionable by end-users as opposed to mere analysis of images.
Creation of such a DPI would involve design and architectural consideration orchestrated through several layers. Some of the important layers include the development of an internationally acceptable taxonomy for earth observation images based on international standards with interoperability considerations between various image sources both terrestrial and space-based. This can lead to building and operationalising an effective registry that can offer images for specific business and governance challenges. There is also a need for creating effective application programme interface standards to allow both the mature systems and emerging players to seamlessly plug into the repository to provide for and obtain images. Storage and pre-processing of images through standard algorithms and mechanisms to transform the images into analytics-ready artefacts, which, through an efficient user-interaction layer that can facilitate seamless conversion of user requirements into desired results will be the most mission-critical layer.
Finally, the path to building this digital highway of the sky with such interconnected layers is not without its challenges. Data security and privacy concerns need careful consideration. Robust mechanisms for data quality control and standardization are essential. Building the necessary infrastructure and user-friendly interfaces requires sustained investment and collaboration between government(s), academia, and the private sector. However, India’s stellar track record in both space technologies and Digital Public Infrastructure makes it a match made in heaven to solve the challenges and unleash its innovation potential.
The author is Partner, Deloitte India. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect Firstpost’s views.
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