While 2019 was all about Chandrayaan-2 and India’s rapid march in the global space race, 2020 reset all expectations as Covid-19 disrupted operations, technology conventions, roadshows and space missions. But in June 2020, there was a ray of hope for spacetech startups as the Indian government opened up the space sector for private players. It also formed a dedicated unit called Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre or IN-SPACe to authorise and regulate private innovation in spacetech.
An independent nodal agency under the department of space (DoS), IN-SPACe has been tasked with examining the extent to which private players can contribute to the space sector, across a range of functions such as establishing ground stations to satellite constellations, to specialised sensors and devices to providing applications and services for spacetech operations.
Heralded as a big bang policy reform for the space sector, it was expected that it would enable the country to benefit from the several use cases of the sector, most significant being communications. And if one goes by initial impressions, the policy seems have borne fruit, as a host of Indian as well as foreign companies, both big firms and nascent startups, have sought IN-SPACe’s permission for moving into the sector.
Earlier this month, Inc42 reported that Bengaluru-headquartered spacetech startup Pixxel had signed a pact with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The startup will launch its first satellite on a polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) rocket in early 2021. Pixxel is building a constellation of earth-imaging small satellites, promising to furnish global coverage through 24 hours, which would then be mined for actionable insights through the company’s artificial intelligence (AI) platform.
In August this year, Pixxel raised $5 Mn in a seed round from Blume Ventures, growX ventures and Lightspeed India, among other investors.
The use cases of the data gathered by Pixxel’s satellites would be felt across sectors such as agriculture, urban monitoring, climate and forestry. For instance, in agriculture, the data would help track crop health in near real-time, identify crop issues early-on and prescribe treatment in a timely manner.
As ISRO chairman K Sivan has said in interviews, the demand for space-based applications and services is growing in the country and the space agency is unable to cater to this by itself. The need for satellite data, imagery and space technology is felt across sectors. According to Sivan, ISRO would have to be expanded 10 times to meet the growing demand.
It is worth mentioning that the space sector wasn’t previously closed to private players. However, beyond being suppliers of components and sub-systems, Indian industry’s role in the sector that is rapidly growing across the world, is limited.
In this respect, the role of IN-SPACe is crucial, as it will also look to help private players gain from ISRO’s expertise.
Startups Tapping The Spacetech Opportunity
Days before Pixxel announced its collaboration with ISRO, Chennai-based startup Agnikul Cosmos Private limited had signed a non-disclosure agreement that will allow it to access the ISRO facilities and technical expertise to build its rocket. Incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Agnikul is building launch vehicles capable of taking micro and nanosatellites to the low Earth orbit, on-demand.
According to reports, several other startups, namely Astrome Technologies, Dhruva Space and Skyroot Aerospace have sought permissions for space-based applications, satellite making and development and launch of rockets.
Hyderabad-based Skyroot recently made the headlines for becoming the first Indian company to test-fire an upper stage rocket engine. The startup, which was selected in Inc42’s list for 30 startups to watch in August this year, is developing launch vehicles (rockets) to provide affordable orbital launch service to the satellites of its customers. Customers pay for this launch service in proportion to their satellite mass.
Skyroot’s vision is to make space-flight as reliable and economical as air flight. Besides test firing the upper-stage rocket engine, it also demonstrated India’s first 100% 3D-printed bipropellant liquid rocket engine injector, which as compared to traditional manufacturing, reduced the overall mass of space vehicles by 50%.
According to a TOI report, 22 Indian firms and 4 global companies have sent their applications to IN-SPACe, seeking approval for various kinds of space-based applications. The global firms include Amazon Web Services, Bharti Airtel-owned OneWeb, the United Arab Emirate’s Archeron Group and Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services.
Beyond space operations and mission support, startups are enabling companies and businesses on the ground to leverage satellite imagery and more for their operations. Mumbai-based spacetech startup Kawa Space, which raised Pre-Series A funding from Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma last year, builds and operates infrastructure in space on behalf of enterprise and corporate clients.
Founded by Kris Nair and Bala M in 2019, Kawa Space’s earth observation satellites are used by customers in financial services, government departments, strategic risk management and agriculture. The company has also won a contract to build more than 27 satellites for the Indian government.
International Players Eye Indian Space Market
Of course, global tech giants have also looked at the opportunity in India, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Last month, the US-based aerospace giant asked the Indian government to facilitate approvals for the use of satellite technology to further internet access in remote rural areas of the country.
In a filing with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Patricia Cooper, vice president, satellite government affairs at SpaceX, while referring to her company’s constellation of 4,400 satellites called Starlink, said, “Powerful next-generation satellite systems flying today that can reach all corners of the country with high-speed affordable service are critical to bridging the digital divide.”
Starlink, once built fully, will consist of small satellites, each weighing about 260kg, in the low Earth orbit (altitude of 2,000 km). These satellites would enable broadband internet access at reasonably low latency. SpaceX is targeting the launch to beta test for Starlink in Northern Canada and the US this year. The company plans to rapidly expand to near-global coverage of the populated world by 2021.
SpaceX made the comments as part of a TRAI consultation on enhancing broadband access and penetration in India. The company’s representation to TRAI can be seen as an indication of its plans for launching Spacelink in India in the near future.
In October, ISRO released a draft Space Communications Policy, which encouraged policy measures to boost private participation in the space communications sector. The policy talks about the need to harness satellite communications by making it easier for private players to introduce satellite broadband. Some of the policy measures outlined in ISRO’s draft paper talked about re-assigning unused orbital resources to entities that are better prepared to use them, involving the Indian industry.
With plenty of potential areas where spacetech innovation will solve challenges, 2021 could very well be the year for spacetech startups in India. Chandrayaan-3, Gaganyaan and other missions have been planned for the year, which could ring in the next chapter for spacetech startups.