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.
While these areas of application need to be explored, restrictions imposed on sharing of EO data also need to be worked on. India has been facing the brunt of such restrictions for a long time. However, the current government is thankfully analysing things in a new light. It thus seems safe to assume that the COVID-19 pandemic is serving as an eye opener for better remote sensing policies in India.
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, machine learning, cloud, blockchain and the internet of things 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.
Predictably, it has been criticised for failing to appreciate current market realities, where transactions involving EO data occur regularly through the internet and often at highly subsidised prices without the role or interference of state intermediaries.
The policy’s current structure seems peculiar given, firstly, it establishes a platform for trading in EO data that is cumbersome and business-unfriendly, in stark contrast to the internet-enabled free markets for EO data. Even in terms of its effectiveness in addressing national security concerns, the policy suffers from the same opaqueness as the map policy, which in the judgement of the Madras high court in the case of J. Mohanraj v. The Secretary to the Government, North Block, New Delhi was held to be unenforceable. On the other hand, the only utility that this policy has achieved, contrary to its presumably noble intent, is to deter EO-data-based businesses by leaving their legitimacy and legality always open for interpretation.
Therefore, the commitment towards reforms by the finance minister is a refreshingly honest admission of the policy’s obvious shortfalls and vindicates the applause her government has earned.
Conversely, the case for de-regulation or minimal regulations of EO technologies and data is well-supported. The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act 1992 of the US adopts a market based approach to regulating EO data. To paraphrase its contents, any remote-sensing data free of national security implications, generated by the state remote-sensing space assets, are released into the hands of licensed distributors who are statutorily required to distribute them liberally on non-discriminatory and fair terms.
A clear licensing regime for aspiring private EO satellite owners and operators that is also liberal has enabled a vibrant EO economy with abundant data freely available for application developers. Yet no evidence exists to show that the free availability of such data or the consequential usage thereof caused or inflicted upon the country a national security vulnerability per se. Therefore, a de-regulated remote sensing data framework can advance economic and social interests without compromising national security.
To conclude, the present conservative regulatory climate for space, and specifically for EO data, not only fails to assure national security benefits but is a poor competitor to the internet-enabled, minimally regulated market for data, products and services based on it. The policy unreasonably assumes a level of distrust with the private sector that is unsupported by experience – especially when, recently, startups in India developed EO applications that aided Kerala’s flood relief efforts.
The efforts to balance national security and economic interests must be through a policy that is realistic and pragmatic, a lesson reflected in the announcements of the finance minister. If action follows these words meaningfully, then this government is entitled to be credited as the author of a truly remarkable transformation of the space industry in India.
Ashok G.V. is an advocate and partner with Factum Law, Bengaluru. Prateep Basu is CEO and cofounder of SatSure.