Satellite Engineering Education for Solving Real, Meaningful Nepali Problems

When India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) blasted off to space from Sriharikota spaceport on Feb 15, 2017, the rocket broke a record. On the launcher’s 38th consecutive successful flight, it took along a mindboggling 104 satellites up to space. 88 of those belonged to a single US based startup called Planet Labs which specializes in building earth observation space systems that are placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

This might come as a surprise to many, but that launch embodies more than a decade of research on nano-satellite technology. Since the introduction of the standardized CubeSat satellite platform at the turn of the millennium, a number of universities and organizations around the world have produced and launched these fit-on-your-palms systems. This explains how a startup was able to have 88 of their own on a single launch.

The beauty though, is not limited to just the scale but the use of Commercial-off-the-Shelf Technology (COTS). The same components that make phones and laptops and electric vehicles are being utilized to conduct meaningful missions beyond the protective layer of the atmosphere. The use so drastically reduced the entry bar to space that even educational institutions with low budget were able to fund research that provided hands-on satellite training to students. In the startup tech industry, this type of shift is called a low-end disruption; a cheaper, simpler, more accessible alternative to an existing solution.

Nano-satellites did just that.

The story does not end here. Students who undego university level research on such technology go through the strenuous process of learning systems engineering and product design in extreme Mechatronics- a field where mechanics converges with electronics, computing and telecommunications engineering. Satellites are, in fact, fully autonomous mechatronic systems with heavy restrictions on mass, power and volume (let's not forget budget). Success in the field is also binary- either it works or it does not. This creates an environment for learning such that students are forced to bring their creative ideas on to the drawing board and push the boundaries of what’s possible with very limited resources that they have. In other words, a fantastic way to train students and change their fundamental habits to find solutions that aren't apparent in the beginning.

Which brings me to my argument that Nepal needs more genuine satellite trained engineers. Not only to build satellites but to use that skill set to solve real, grass root level problems here and to replicate their core DNA on to others. The same technique and methodologies learned going through the satellite systems engineering process of  building, testing, launching and operating a satellite can be used to create products on Internet of Things (IoT), remote monitoring systems, power efficient cameras, drone systems which could have enormous impact in agriculture, environment and health. Not only that, even if they were to continue doing Research and Development (R&D) in space, spin-off technologies can come in direct use in collecting useful data.

For instance, a miniaturized multispectral camera built for a nano-satellite can be placed on a drone to monitor health of crops using Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) can be monitored by modifying the same space-tested camera, hooking that into a network and remotely accessing data from a ground station in Kathmandu. A similar case for telecommunication can be made to place a network of soil moisture sensors in terrace farms that communicate with a single network connected computer which allows farmers have access to data from just about anywhere. A multi-fold increase in crop yeild is thought to be possible if water supply is optimum (This information though, strictly comes from talking to farmers and not from emperical evidence. Papers like [HERE] explain that soil moisture level can be limiting factor, causing tissue damage and restricting plant growth)

These examples are, as they say, only the tip of a enormous, gi-normous iceberg. The possibilities of what these engineers can solve are endless. Nepal needs more of them.


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