In the challenging time of a COVID-19 outbreak, satellite monitoring has been playing a pivotal role in curbing the spread of the infection, mainly by helping identifying risk zones and facilitating quick response. However, there remains a huge potential to use Earth-observation (EO) data to shed new light on societal and economic changes currently taking place. The spate of reforms announced by the Indian government designed to create and nurture private enterprises in the field of space exploration, satellite communications regulations and remote-sensing has not only inspired hope for countless space entrepreneurs but has the potential to transform the delivery of social dividends by EO and remote-sensing technologies. First, the context: As per the Geospatial Media and Communications report 2019, the EO industry alone is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.1% during 2018-2023, into a $11.8 billion economy by 2023, in turn generating revenues of $88.3 billion from geographic information systems (better known as GIS) and analytics applications. Thus, EO assets demonstrate that space technologies are driven towards solving real-world problems and not just by a need to indulge humankind’s existential curiosities.
Benefits of EO data: The transition of EO satellites from being mere expressions of state and military aspirations in space to an industry has been enabled by the integration of satellite data with Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Cloud, Blockchain and the Internet Of Things (IOT) technologies. The resulting convergence, together with rapid privatisation, has transformed raw EO data into reliable insights and geospatial applications, with proven applications for better governance and better decisions. Today, applications derived from satellite EO are used in India to improve the integrity of agricultural risk-based insurance, enable informed decisions in agri-finance credit transactions, improve mapping and mining of mineral resources, expand lawful surveillance, aid forest conservation, enable urban planning and address land-encroachment. As opposed to conventional means that try to meet the same governance and commercial objectives, EO data is defined by three distinct advantages: scale, frequency and timeliness of data capture. However, these technologies assume more urgency and significance in a world defined by the limitations around COVID-19. As physical distancing becomes the norm and considering the risks and potential costs associated with travel, including those to health, the demand for real-time intelligence of activities on distant lands can only be met with the innovative and steady use of EO assets. By enabling cost effective supply chains, real-time identification of new market opportunities and improving customer connectivity through integration of relevant information and communications technology (ICT) tools, EO assets and applications will continue to yield business benefits while reducing risks to human health as well as costs that are associated with travelling. The corresponding meteoric rise in demand for EO-data-based analytics can only be met if the states partner with private enterprises to scale up capacity and to rapidly innovate.
Getting over the national security myth: However, the bold vision for a world optimally exploiting EO assets and efforts to realise their social dividends for India have been stifled by the opaquely worded Remote Sensing Data Policy 2011. The policy has concentrated the power and function of aggregating and distributing all EO data in the hands of the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and for high-resolution satellite images, specifically the High Resolution Image Committee (HRIC). The mechanism suffers from a lack of transparency and avoids providing a measure of predictability on the success of obtaining EO data from NRSC and HRIC.