Create INDRA, a DARPA for tech solutions to national issues

t is no secret that India’s cities are being choked by rising vehicular population and spiraling pollution.

Published: 15th January 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th January 2017 07:45 AM   |  A+A-

It cost the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) roughly $74 million to put Mangalyaan  aka Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in orbit, while it cost Hollywood producers around $100 million to produce Gravity. The story is well known. Less known is the fact that NASA spent $671 million the very same week for its Mars mission, MAVEN. Or that ISRO works with a fraction of the budget available to NASA. ISRO’s budget for 2016-17 was around Rs 7,500 crore or around $1.1 billion, while the 2016 budget for NASA was $18.5 billion.

The drum rolls and applause are well deserved. The question is, can India leverage this and other illustrative successes in frugal engineering and innovation for greater good. How does India and how do Indians benefit from the spectacular capabilities of ISRO exhibited year after year? A critical experiment underway may have some answers.

It is no secret that India’s cities are being choked by rising vehicular population and spiraling pollution. Sometime in late 2015, Roads and Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari asked why India cannot shift to electric buses and vehicles. The answer: high cost of batteries. Although the fact is that India does not lag in technological prowess to suffer high costs. Remember the Mars Orbiter, which travelled 622 million km in its heliocentric trajectory towards Mars, was powered by batteries developed by ISRO.

Gadkari being Gadkari approached ISRO and asked if the technology that powered the MOM can be made available. The result: ISRO made available the technology to produce step-down versions of lithium ion batteries for automobiles. The results of this one-of-a-kind collaboration between ISRO and the Automotive Research Association of India could be on the roads in months if not weeks—and the cost of producing these batteries is expected to be a 10th of what it would cost to import these batteries.

The adoption of ISRO technology on the ground is not new. It has been done earlier but at a governmental level. In 2011-12 for instance, the Gujarat government collaborated with ISRO to deliver real-time satellite data to fishermen by SMS notifying them where schools of fish could be found with coordinates. This helped fisherfolk on vessels save time and fuel costs. ISRO is also in conversation with 60 ministries for providing technologies.

And it is not just ISRO. The Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) also has solutions—new technologies available at low costs which may have answers for some of India’s seemingly intractable problems. DRDO—in concert with defence research labs across the country—has made available an array of 45 technologies ranging from reverse osmosis systems for water purification to explosive detection kits.

The array of technologies on offer is riveting for a nerd. These range from highly technical solutions for special purposes to those with wider applications, including those for heated insoles, flame retardant gloves, portable tele-medicine systems, rubber tiles, herbal insecticidal sticks, Shudhika skin decontamination kits, phase change materials based panels and vests for temperature control for use in buildings, railway coaches and even vehicles.

India’s scientific institutions have been and are making technology available on open source under conditions. DRDO offers technology transfers for  Indian industry to supply armed forces and for spin off for sales in commercial market (http://bit.ly/2in6bQR). So does the ISRO.

However, much of the interaction is in silos and limited by articulation. There is also within the system an absence of evangelism to propel optimisation, to create the eco-system of innovation-led progress. Think UIDAI, NPCI, UPI and think digital payments.

And this is why India needs a platform like DARPA—Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States of America. DARPA was formed by the US in the aftermath of the shock of witnessing the success of Soviet Union launching the Sputnik in 1957. Since then, DARPA—now headed by India-born Caltech alumna Arati  Prabhakar—has driven innovation using a small, nimble team of 200 persons and delivered to the world technology ranging from the internet to hand-held GPS systems and is now focused on fields as diverse as mathematics, synthetic biology, and neuro-technology. What is critical is that it “does not perform its engineering alchemy in isolation”.

India, too, needs to integrate its capabilities and technologies. This requires a blue-skies thinkers’ team that can connect the solutions with the problems. The challenge is to comprehend the technologies made available by various scientific institutions. And this cannot only be a government-to-government or even government-to-industry conversation. The promotion of technology for delivering solutions requires a platform for engagement between technology providers and users—governments, municipal bodies and even average citizens.

To enable this India needs to create a platform that can connect problems and research. Call it INDRA—Indian Development Research Agency, an umbrella organisation that will host technologies, induct talent and fund research on advanced technologies as also those that deliver solutions for everyday problems.

For instance, can ISRO’s satellite capabilities help map water tables and redesign India’s crop pattern? Can ISRO communication technologies be harnessed to enable a low-geo-stationary vehicle to restore mobile connectivity in a disaster zone? Can the lithium ion technology be used to replace backup systems of polluting mobile towers? Can the telemedicine capabilities be made available for a PPP between specialist doctors and the rural health mission? Can distance education via satellites be a solace for students without teachers? Can the phase change materials technology of DRDO be popularised to promote conservation of energy?

The opportunity is immense. INDRA could host all the technologies made available by scientific institutions—ISRO, DRDO et al—on one platform. INDRA can then deploy talent—lateral entrants from universities, government labs and private sector under a short term programme as in DARPA—to look at problems and solutions. A good way to approach this would be to shortlist issues and announce a grand challenge. INDRA must then choose and fund cutting-edge research. Remember given India’s market size technologies developed can deliver global footprints.

As it turns 70 this year, the question is can India with 1,311 million people afford incremental driblets and the many deficits if it must deliver on food security, education, health, urbanisation and employment? The real challenge is not the deficits but how successfully India shifts gears and connects the capabilities of its people to address the needs of the nation. The answer is blowing in the winds.

Shankkar Aiyar
Author of Accidental
India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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