Moore’s law in semiconductors drove the consumer electronics revolution and today the likes of Apple and Google have been able to create two-sided platforms that allow independent development of applications by anyone using their platforms. We have witnessed the growth of smartphone-based applications with the opening of their platforms to independent developers and giving them a foundation to scale the types of the range of services that people need. There are over 4 million apps today available in Apple Appstore and Google Play Store. Could we have witnessed such a diverse range of uses of the smartphone-based services with if Apple and Google only allowed its own apps in their respective platforms? Interestingly, we might be a point of inflection where the same analogy can be applied to space. India’s space-based assets can be considered as smartphones on the back of which developers can today build several applications that can tackle several of the challenges in society.
Perhaps the most important aspect in bringing the app-store analogy to the realm of space is in answering the question of ‘Why now?’ The reasons are two-part. Firstly, it is simply the ability to reach a massive number of end users for direct consumption of space-based services through smartphones. For example, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has developed the use of satellites for fishermen community by providing them coordinates of Potential Fishing Zones (PFZ) through a quantitative analysis of sea surface temperature and chlorophyll. This application was developed using Oceansat-1 launched in 1999 and the coordinates of the PFZ were being faxed to Fishery Survey of India (FSI), which then had to supply it to the local fishing communities. Former ISRO Chief K Radhakrishnan describes that the search time for the small fishing communities was reduced by 70% and small vessels could save over ₹5 Lakh a year with the use of such a service. It is not clear today if this application has kept up with the smartphone revolution to take advantage of the use of smartphones in small fishing communities to enable direct end-user engagement.
Secondly, the drastically reduced cost of computing and the increased capacity to computing means that high-end computing is now in the grasp of any developer with a laptop. Perhaps even a decade ago processing terabytes of satellite images to extract meaningful information and delivering services were only possible with massive investments by governments. Today, the likes of Amazon Web Services, SAP are enabling start-ups around the world to use space-based information to deliver value in terrestrial industries. One of the examples of this within India is former ISRO scientists creating a start-up to deliver analytics in the agriculture sector.
These two reasons form the basis of the timing. Clearly, there are several areas of applications that can today take advantage of the location/communication-based services combined with remotely sensed information which can be served through platforms to enable socio-economic benefits.
If the ‘why now?’ argument is convincing enough, the immediate question then to ask is ‘now what?’. The solution simply lies in mimicking what enabled hordes of developers to create smartphone apps to build unique products and services. Where Apple and Google opened the gateway into their ecosystem by providing an entry through standardizing a developer program and provided them with the tools to catalyze the development of applications, ISRO can look to strategies that will allow the use of its assets by space application developers to be able to have frictionless access to the required space-based information. This may translate in smoothening the access to data from satellites via cloud-based request, authentication and access, standardize (and perhaps also promote through subsidizing) the integration India’s own navigation system, enabling the new generation of communication-based services developers plugging their way in the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem to use space-based services.
Does it really matter?
Most space applications started as pigeon holes where the exploitation of products from remote sensing data or providing communication services or location-based services were thought of as independent services that can be all segregated. However, the reality today is that the lines between these services are all fading away. Providing a democratised platform and tools for people to solve their own problems can help inspire a new generation of space-based applications to be developed for the challenges in the Indian society.
As India’s space program is further diversifying to include foraying into novel space science missions, human spaceflight efforts, catering to security needs, developing technology for new series of rockets and satellites, taking an open innovation approach inspired by app-store analogy can not only help ISRO continue investing in developing novel technologies to improve space-based services, it will also create an ecosystem to scale the number of space-based socio-economic products and services but can also aid in India’s space assets to be scaled to large scale global adoption.