Young researchers beat COVID odds to live their space dream

BITS-Pilani young researchers with former ISRO chief A. S. Kiran Kumar.

By Anjali Chhabra

New Delhi: With guidance from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), budding scientists are working overtime to surmount the temporary bumps caused by Coronavirus in their journey to make the first indigenously built nanosatellite from Birla Institute of Technology and Science at Pilani, or just BITS-Pilani.

The engineering students’ objective is to design, build and launch a 3U nanosatellite with a hyperspectral camera as a payload. The nanosatellite or CubeSat — of the size of a shoe-box — with a special camera will help study the Earth’s surface to provide important information for various uses including defence applications.

The Rajasthan-based technology institute is nurturing Team Anant — a group of passionate undergraduates who came together in Jan. 2013. The team today has 40 students from various disciplines, supervised by a panel of faculty members.

However, Coronavirus has proved to be a big test for these budding scientists. The Pilani-based students’ nanosatellite mission received a brief setback due to the pandemic-related lock down that forced them to vacate their hostel rooms.

While college lectures switched to online mode, there was no sign of early resumption of the CubeSat project. This is when Team Anant decided to start setting up virtual workplaces and start collaborating remotely.

Today, the budding techies are spread across the country, based as they are in their respective homes, but are united once again in their knowledge pursuit and nanosatellite mission. “Since most of the hardware for the mission (sensors, circuit boards, etc) was still on campus, students decided to move forward with software simulations, modelling, literature reviews and documentations,” Team Anant’s student coordinator Karan Singh Mathur said.

Photo: Team Anant members working on their nanosatellite.

“This also meant new work protocols and improved ways to collaborate. To cope up with the situation on hand, a more focused effort was put in shifting a larger part of the work to software. Some of the current problems like code collaboration are solved using Git version control systems. The communication platform is switched to Microsoft Teams for better regulation and workflow among the teammates other than communicating about team meetings that are now conducted online,” he said.

Team Anant rose to the challenge and although some delays were normal in the initial days most of the day-to-day activities were back in order. “The team also had a leadership transition from senior to junior batch online along with virtual farewells for graduating seniors held on video call platforms such as Google Meets inducing a sense of normalcy and refreshing morale”, he said.

Photo: The young researchers from BITS-Pilani.

Team Anant’s innovative approach to overcome COVID-19 hurdles inspired other research teams on the campus as well. Sally Robotics, another on-campus tech team that works on making a self-driving car with Artificial Intelligence capabilities adapted especially for Indian conditions, also took to remote working.

“With the most important piece of hardware, the car itself being on campus, one half of Sally Robotic’s workforce should have been paralysed. But instead we continued working on other challenges improvising by using cloud GPUs to process algorithms, do literature reviews, document past work, and build datasets via simulations,” said Sally Robotics team captain Prateek Garg.

“In the backdrop of the government’s increasing focus on indigenisation through ‘Make in India’ and the motivation driven by the launch of ‘IN- SPACe’ our effort to prove our prowess in sophisticated space technologies is a big statement,” Sanskriti Jindal, Team Anant’s publicity and sponsorship lead, said.

“Such a camera was used by an Indian satellite for the first time in Nov. 2018. Ours will be one of the first student nanosatellite to do so,” said Jindal. The nanosatellite will have a hyperspectral camera as a payload. Hyperspectral imaging is the process of collecting and processing images across the electromagnetic spectrum, she said.

What’s special about a hyperspectral camera is that it captures much more information than a normal camera. This additional data collected by it makes it valuable for defence applications, quick response to natural hazard response. It can also improve weather forecast, help measure ozone concentration in the stratosphere, speed up the process of land use classification or vegetation mapping and algae detection and exploring mineral resources.

As for the financial aspect of Team Anant’s CubeSat, the nearly Rs 1-crore ($135,000) project is being funded by BITS-Pilani and sponsors currently. Even after the launch, the control for most domains is likely to remain with the students of the institute.

Besides taking pride in their project, the students also represent a patriotic purpose in demonstrating their prowess in the amalgamation of new and emerging technologies of all different domains of various engineering and science disciplines, more so, after the Galwan Valley clash between the Indian and Chinese military.

“Development of a nanosatellite at a university level is a very ambitious and prestigious project for any institute. Its success will send a strong message to the world, including China, that the country has a thriving research pool to take on the very best,” said a BITS-Pilani student.

Team Anant and Sally Robotics, both tech teams of BITS-Pilani students, have shown the way how talent is the key to turn adversity into an opportunity. Their small initiatives may appear to be droplets in the sea of challenge posed by the pandemic, yet, it demonstrates how engineering students and the research community in the country can lead the path of recovery after COVID-19 disruptions while innovation holds the key to India’s ambitious march towards a $5-trillion economy and a major player in world affairs.

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