The galactic gold rush of Indian companies

Have you heard of Shakuntala in space?

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos soared into space for 10 minutes last summer in his phallic New Shepard rocket, the world was in turmoil. Just like a few days earlier, when British entrepreneur Richard Branson made his own quick but historic trip to space.

The idea is to deploy a constellation of the world’s first hyperspectral satellites that can enable us to provide the service on a commercial basis. —Awais Ahmed, CEO and co-founder of space startup Pixxel

The good thing is that the government is encouraging local businesses to participate in the opportunity to develop indigenous technologies and applications. —Rohan Varma, CEO and Executive Director, MapMyIndia

Shakuntala, however, barely made the headlines. The satellite, made by Bengaluru-based startup Pixxel, blasted off into space on a SpaceX rocket on April 1. It uses hyperspectral imaging technology to detect everything from soil quality and crop infestation to gas pipeline leaks or even pollution levels. “The idea is to deploy a constellation of the world’s first hyperspectral satellites that can allow us to see these things as a private enterprise and provide the service on a commercial basis at an affordable cost to organizations around the world,” Awais said. Ahmed, CEO and co-founder of Pixxel, one of India’s most talked about space startups. “We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we can do.”

Boldly going where no man has gone before and giving company to start-up innovators like Ahmed are among India’s greatest entrepreneurs. First on the block is Sunil Mittal of Bharti Airtel. “With our vast pool of talent, the growing prowess of local tech startups and private companies, India is at an inflection point of what will be a giant leap into the space arena,” said Mittal, who has partnered with the UK government for OneWeb, an ambitious venture to deliver the internet directly from space.

OneWeb intends to deliver the service via 648 low-orbit satellites circling the Earth – 428 are already in place and the service could launch by the end of the year. “One Web [satellites] will cover the whole of India, from Ladakh to Kanyakumari and from Gujarat to the northeast, and will bring secure solutions to enterprises, governments, telecom operators, airlines and maritime customers,” said Neil Masterson, CEO of OneWeb.

Not far behind is Mittal’s nemesis in telecoms, Mukesh Ambani. Its Jio Platforms announced plans in February to form a joint venture with Luxembourg-based SES SA to provide satellite services in India. Also in the fray is Tata, which is likely to offer Lightspeed, a satellite broadband service from Canada’s Telesat.

While satellite internet seems like the icing on the cake for space, it’s by no means the only area the big guns have been interested in. Gautam Adani, who is building a conglomerate, threw his hat into the ring. With L&T, it plans to manufacture the next-generation polar satellite launcher rocket. In fact, Jitendra Singh, Union Minister of State for Space, recently told parliament that the space regulator had received applications from 48 private companies to undertake space activities.

The reasons are not too far to seek. Long reserved for governments and their scientific and defense institutions, space has opened up to private companies in recent years in many countries. For India, Covid-19 and the launch of Atmanirbhar Bharat were turning points. Among the multitude of restructuring and stimulus plans announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in May 2020 was the opening of India’s space sector to private actors.

This meant that anyone with an idea and the resources could launch a space technology-related business for commercial purposes and hope for support from IN-SPACe, the government’s newly created regulatory body, and even test clearances. at the facilities of the Indian Space Research Organization. Until now, the only private Indian players in space have been contracted suppliers providing parts or services specific to ISRO’s space programs.

The global space economy is estimated at around Rs34 lakh crore, and India’s current share is only 2.68%. Researchers from the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology based in Thiruvananthapuram, as well as the Center for Development Studies, have estimated India’s space economy to be worth Rs 36,794 crore in 2021.

Investment services firm ICRA estimates that once commercial satellite communications, the area where Bharti, Reliance and Tata have their eyes set, start-ups and the number of users grow, annual revenues could hit $6. 000 crores of rupees in three years.

The interest of major players in the diffusion of the Internet from space is understandable. The current way of delivering high-speed Internet via mobile cellular networks and wired connections is limited and large swathes of the planet remain unserved. Although satellite telephony (voice calls only) was tried by some players in the 1990s, the business proved unviable for most of them. But today the proliferation of broadband internet satellites – Elon Musk’s Starlink has some 2,000 satellites for this purpose – means that technology has improved and costs have come down.

“Satellite communication will remain crucial for the inclusion of broadband in many sparsely populated areas that have not been connected via a terrestrial network,” said Sabyasachi Majumdar, Group Leader and Senior Vice President of ICRA . KRSekar, chairman of the Bangalore Chamber of Industry and Commerce and a Deloitte partner, said the growth of digital broadband connectivity was too slow and left large parts of India unconnected. “Satellite communication is a welcome option,” he said.

This would help about 25,000 villages that the government deemed too difficult to integrate into the BharatNet project. But that means more than faster movie downloads or better multiplayer games while sipping yak tea in a remote village in Ladakh. Satellite connectivity would transform the operational efficiency of the shipping and aviation industries in one fell swoop, allowing passengers and crew to be in real-time, full-time contact. Beyond consumer use, it will be vital for everything from cargo tracking and remote medical care to border surveillance and disaster management.

With such massive potential, it’s not just Indian biggies looking to take off. Musk intends to take a big slice of the internet pie in the sky. The Starlink service has 2.5 lakh users in 25 countries and recently requested permission to send 30,000 more satellites to connect every inch of the planet.

Musk had set up a subsidiary in India which got more than 5,000 pre-orders, before the government snubbed him asking to stop bookings because the company was unlicensed. Musk’s rival for space and wealth, Bezos also has big plans. Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which took over Facebook’s (now called Meta) similar project last year to bring internet services to remote areas, is aiming for a global footprint through its own set of 3,000 satellites.

While satellite broadband internet may be the most lucrative part of this galactic gold rush, opportunities abound in everything from building rockets to cleaning up satellite debris in space. The government’s relaxation of rules has opened the floodgates – new businesses in the space sector have risen from 11 before the policy change to 47 just two years later.

These companies have made their mark through sheer innovation and originality of ideas, whether it’s Bellatrix, which has a business model of mapping objects and debris in space, or AgniKul Cosmos, which became the first company in the world to successfully test a fully 3D printed rocket. engine.

“The good thing is that the government is encouraging local businesses to participate in the opportunity to develop indigenous technologies and applications,” said Rohan Varma, CEO and Executive Director of MapMyIndia. “There are so many innovations that can come from opening up this sector to economic applications from defense or civil society, such as the vegetation index for farmers or cyclone alerts for fishermen. “

Venture capitalists have pumped nearly Rs1.3 lakh crore into the space sector globally. While some desi companies have registered in the United States to benefit, in India they receive grants from alumni associations and academic institutions like the Indian Institute of Science. The entrepreneurship unit of the IISc’s Innovation and Development Society has been at the forefront. “Even angel investors only show interest when companies reach a certain stage and are generating revenue or are getting close to it. high,” said SSMurali, Cell President at IISc. “In India, there are no VCs specializing in the space sector, but a few have started investing in the sector.”

Indian space adventurers hope the government will provide a helping hand until the funding ecosystem grows. “We requested a production-related incentive program, a tax holiday and no bid for spectrum allocation,” said Lt. Gen. (ret’d) AKBhatt, chief executive of the Indian Space Association. “The biggest challenge is that ROI takes a long time and the risk is high. Funding is important and it will come from the private sector, but government support is very important.

The government has recently updated policies relating to space communication as well as remote sensing, although there is still no clarity on what a private company can or cannot do. Starlink being told to stop taking pre-orders is a classic example.

But the intent is clear, with a new Space Policy and Space Activities Bill on the anvil and this year’s economic study which eloquently shows how India is well positioned to capture greater slice of the global space technology pie. Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it succinctly: “India has mastered all aspects of space technology, from satellites, launchers, applications to interplanetary missions. We have made efficiency an important part of our brand. As we move from the information age to the space age, we need to further strengthen the brand value of this efficiency. »

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