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From Chandrayaan to NavIC to use of AI... ISRO Chairman S Somanath speaks exclusively to Asianet News Network

ISRO Chairman visited the Asianet Suvarna News office in Bengaluru and had a casual interaction with the media personalities in the office. He says the space agency is looking to create an industry in India that can build all the technologies needed for space exploration. He says AI is already being used in space, for example in image analysis. He also says that ISRO is encouraging private companies to work in the space sector.

From Chandrayaan to NavIC to use of AI... ISRO Chairman S Somanath speaks exclusively to Asianet News Network vkp
First Published Feb 5, 2024, 4:33 PM IST

ISRO Chairman Somanath visited the Asianet Suvarna News office in Bengaluru and interacted with the media personalities in the office. Asianet News Executive Chairman Rajesh Kalra, Kannadaprabha newspaper editor Ravi Hegde, and all the other team leads were present during the interaction.

Speaking with the personalities, Somanath said, "We are all sceptical individuals. If one mission fails and no action is taken, a pattern of failure may persist. Developing a proactive attitude towards the work is essential for success, considering the various potential challenges. In space missions, we encounter many such issues, where we have to take action”

Algorithmically, we need to reevaluate numerous possibilities. There are always multiple approaches to address an issue. Engaging in debates, and arguments, and ultimately reaching a consensus is crucial. We advocate for a continuous culture of debate. It is imperative to establish an organizational culture that encourages people to question and bring diverse perspectives and attitudes. However, once a decision is made, it should be diligently implemented. ISRO promotes a debating culture and fosters ongoing discussions within the organization.

During failures, a comprehensive management approach must be applied to address them. Creating an environment where individuals feel a sense of urgency can lead to excellent performance. The overarching technical solution lies in fostering numerous discussions within the team to extract the best possible outcomes."

Q: Does ISRO help women to overcome their stress?

A: Their life is a little difficult. Post-marriage, childbearing becomes difficult for them. To be honest, women become stressed and during this period, they come to the office very little. In other companies, promotion is often based on years of working. However, at ISRO, Promotion is based on merit and performance. Women often face problems during pregnancy. Promotions get delayed due to this and hence, the workload becomes more. If they are extremely good at their work, their performance will be evaluated. But other than that, being a woman at ISRO, they are given preferential treatment. If they show leadership, they are given the chance. They are given chance equally. I have experienced that many times, women are better leaders than men. 

Q: During one of the media interactions, you mentioned the investment of private companies in space. How is it going to work for ISRO?

A: ISRO is a research organization. We're encouraging private companies to work in the space sector. They just supply us with machinery and other items. Even the central government does not allow private companies to work in the space sector. However, there are regulations on such allowance; they are given a license from a governing body. Whether it will be profitable and its benefits are just to be calculated, provided it has just begun. On the application part, many companies are doing well in various domains. People in our country are becoming more aware of big changes happening in India's space sector, and it's making them feel positive. Kids are also getting more interested in space science. Technology is getting better quickly, especially in space, making information about things like the weather more accurate. Image processing and communication companies are doing good. Satellites are built not just for India; even they are exported to other countries as well. At least 5 companies have started in India that are ready to build satellites. In Bengaluru, 3 companies are working in this domain. ISRO is mandated to help the companies with all the technology. To help them test their products. 

Q: What is the status of NavIC? When will it be launched?

A: NavIC has been here for many years. It was denied after the Kargil War for the use of force. The civilian side was not given dominance. We have taken a course of action that it shall be used in the Defence sector for their equipments. It will also have civilian use as well. It did not have the frequency called the L1 band, only the S and L5 bands. Recently started the L1 band. The first satellite is already launched. Four more will be launched. It will soon be visible on mobile. Apple has already launched it. They have some software algorithm to convert L5 and use it as L1.  Once we put all the 5, you will be able to use it on mobile phones. 

Q: In India, success is when people celebrate through Television like anything. People are often disappointed seeing the failures. How does that impact you?

A: I have seen failure. The ASLV mission failed. People used to throw stones. The criticism was that ASLV always went into the sea. People used to call is (Always Sea Launch Vehicle) Later, PSLV went up to success. Issues we faced was the utilization of the infrastructure we were given. Eventually, we changed our course of action and utilized our resources. Now the public is happy; we are happy, and of course, the government is also happy with us. When the public is observing technical growth, they will become aware of our organisation. After Chandrayaan's success, there is observation all around that India is growing in space. This is the best part. Many youngsters are inspired. 

PM Modi told me, "You people do not even realize the impact you created through Chandrayaan's success." It changed the narrative that we used the space for the application-driven measures. He mentioned that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with scientists, he recognized the big impact ISRO has had on our country. ISRO used to focus on making satellites for practical things like helping with weather alerts and supporting fishermen. Now, ISRO is thinking about exploring the moon, studying the sun, and building a space station. Because India is the third-largest economy in Asia, we need to explore space, showing a change in how ISRO thinks.

We use satellites for agriculture and weather services. We were never into Science and exploration. This narrative slightly changed. Going to the moon is not a bad thing today. Cyclone warnings are accurate today. Weather forecasts have been better than 30 years before. Now with small money, we are embarking on moon missions. This is a positive thing. We would often build satellites for agriculture, applications, and mobile services. We will continue to do that, and along with it, we shall continue space exploration.

Q: What are your goals for the space industry in 2047?

A: The space industry is of historical importance. The USA built missiles for war. Until the 2nd world war, there were only missiles. After that, rockets were built. In India, it was in the reverse direction. We started bringing satellites from abroad, for applications. We built satellites and launched them from Russia. Progress of technology in India and abroad is in the reverse direction. In the past, India was behind the US and Europe in space development, but now we're seen as equals with a lot of potential. We can make our rockets, do research, and use artificial technology on our own. In missions to the moon, we even used artificial intelligence to identify different places. This shows that we're good at using advanced technology.

Even today, there is no industry to build all these technologies. The first goal is to create such an industry. To build end-to-end equipment for space. Our manufacturing space needs to be upgraded. Low-cost manufacturing sector. Aerospace manufacturing should be revolutionized. That is the goal. 

Q: What is the use of AI in space?

A: AI is already there in space. Used for Image analysis, The Chandrayaan landing happened with the help of AI image analysis. During the Chandrayaan landing, we could not land the vehicle at the right place through 2D images. So AI came as a big help to develop footage. During the landing, the AI helped to merge different angles of images captured through the various cameras on the vehicle and render them into 3D footage. it also helped us to process the shadows and other materials surrounding the vehicle. 

Q: We are very good with IT. We often went to the world in the wrong manner, describing ourselves with cheap alternatives rather than quality alternatives. Many times, foreign nations often referred us us Software coolies. But now, at low cost, we are producing high-quality materials.  

A: All the high-end software we use comes from abroad. Indians working outside give us the technology. The aim is that we must create our software. For example, at ISRO - we use Computer shift load analysis. When I became director of ISRO, I aimed that we should not use purchased software. Similarly, we have our analysis software. Building technical software is very important. In the past, people have been building it and it should be continued. 

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