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ISRO working on hack-proof comms, robots, self-healing materials, debris-free rockets and satellites

Chennai: The Indian Space Research Organization(ISRO) is working on nearly 50 futuristic, innovative technologies that will cater to the country’s technological needs, in the coming decades. Some of them include Quantum communications, space debris mitigation technologies, robotic arms, interplanetary rovers, etc.

Top officials of the space agency enlisted these technologies at the Inaugural session of the ISRO’s Directorate of Technology Development and Innovation (DTDI)Conclave.

Speaking at the event, Dr. K. Sivan, Chairman, ISRO said that DTDI was formed as a dedicated Directorate at ISRO headquarters to sow the seeds of futuristic and disruptive technology for the space sector. He added that the technologies were being developed based on the global trends and a SWOT analysis of their possible applications.

ISRO, Indian industry and academia would be collaborating and investing their resources to realize these technologies, said Dr. Sivan, who also serves as Secretary, Department of Space.

“Over the last 3 years, ISRO initiated 46 technological endeavors such as Quantum communication, space-debris mitigation technologies like self-eating rockets, self-vanishing satellites and robotic arms to catch space debris” Dr. Sivan said. He elaborated that quantum communication and satellite-based quantum communication, quantum cryptography could provide unconditional data security in secure communications.

With space debris from destroyed satellites, overpopulation of space by defunct satellites and active ones, spent rocket stages being a major concern, there is a growing need for mitigating this challenge.

A global effort is underway to maximize the operations of re-usable rockets, enable in-space refueling, servicing of satellites, minimizing, collecting and removing space debris, developing materials that don’t pose a long-threat to other space assets etc. It is in that context that ISRO’s plan for self-eating rockets and self-vanishing satellites, robotic arms needs to be seen.

Quantum mechanics is a theory in physics that describes the physical properties of nature at the level of atoms and sub-atomic particles. This is different from Classical physics that describes many aspects of nature at an ordinary (macroscopic) scale.

Conventionally, sensitive data is sent via cable or other means along with the digital keys needed to decode the information. This is sent via a stream of electrical or optical pulses that are representing 0s and 1s(bits). However, this is prone to hacking, without the knowledge of the sender and receiver.

In Quantum communication, particles(photons of light) are transmitted in qubits(quantum bits), which have both 0 and 1 value at the same time. So, if a hacker were to try and eavesdrop on it, they must measure these qubits, which leaves a detectable trace and alerts the sender and receiver. This is based on the principle that – a quantum state cannot be measured without disturbing it. If qubits are disturbed, then both parties know it and can abandon the exchange.

On disruptive technologies that ISRO was working on, R. Umamaheswaran, Scientific Secretary, ISRO, mentioned quantum radars, low temperature lithium-ion cells that can power sub-systems in sub zero temperatures and space-based solar power etc.

He added that ISRO had created a ‘Vision 2030’, based on ideas received from its scientists and engineers. This included “General purpose Humanoid robots, in-situ propellant production for interplanetary exploration, planetary rock sampling, intelligent space vehicle, robotic arm in space, spider rover, AI enabled spacecraft, Lattice composite structure etc.”

On the status of these technologies, he said that few of them were in the feasibility study stages, whereas the development of some others had been initiated at the lab level.

ISRO will also be harnessing Artificial Intelligence, Machine learning and Big data analysis to make better use of data from satellites, in order to cater to the understanding of earth’s resources.

“We are looking at ensuring preparedness for handling celestial and anthropogenic challenges, developing AI-Based models for on-board anomaly detection in spacecrafts, Spatio-temporal weather prediction, Ground water level prediction, generation of land cover maps, AI driven quality inspection, AI-driven Agriculture etc.” Dr. Umamaheshwaran added.

Via initiatives such as DTDI Connect and DTDI extend, ISRO aims to unite technology developers from across the country with potential users to enable customized products that are ready-to-induct. The spin-offs from such technological products are services are also expected to be of great utility to the country and its rapidly-growing advanced requirements.