Sai Arul Head of SAARC Region Maxar Technologies

Interview: Sai Arul, Head of Region (SAARC), Maxar Technologies

“Access to the right data is essential to support informed crop management decisions…The draft new Geospatial Policy and Space Policy under consideration by the Central Government would provide the required liberalization to access cutting-edge satellite technology.”

This interview was originally published in AGI’s Jul-Aug 2021 Newsletter Edition on the theme of Agriculture and Fisheries. To download the full newsletter, click here.

We know of Maxar as a leading Satellite data provider, but it is much more than that. Can you take us through some of your key capabilities and solutions for the India market?

Maxar partners with innovative businesses and more than 50 governments to monitor global change, deliver broadband communications and advance space operations with capabilities both in Earth Intelligence and Space Infrastructure.

Within Earth Intelligence, our capabilities include collecting the world’s highest resolution satellite imagery; performing advanced analytics and  machine learning to derive business-critical insights; and producing 3D elevation suites, GIS-ready information layers, analytics and tailored multisource solutions that can be provisioned directly or through cloud-based subscription services. In addition, our WeatherDesk offerings elegantly translate weather data into insights, allowing customers to quickly absorb weather information for better business, mission and operations decision making.

Maxar also specializes in manufacturing Space Infrastructure, including geostationary communications satellites, spacecraft systems, next-generation propulsion systems, robotics and on-orbit servicing. Maxar has built over 300 satellites, of which over 90 are currently in service.

All the above offerings are available for the Indian market.

Artificial Intelligence and Big Data Analytics are not mere buzz words for the space and geospatial sector anymore. How is Maxar leveraging these technologies for delivering quality solutions for the users?

In artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), computer programs improve through data access and experiential learning. Algorithms with richer training data become more effective in nature. Robust and effective geospatial AI/ML requires huge amounts of high-resolution satellite imagery, with more data resulting in a smarter machine. That is where Maxar’s 125-petabyte imagery archive is advantageous. With imagery dating back to 1999 and 3.8 million sq km of collection capacity available daily, Maxar has the largest archive of commercial satellite imagery in the world for exploiting AI and Big Data analytics. 

Mapping at Scale with AI Maxar Securewatch
Mapping at Scale with AI | Maxar SecureWatch | Source: Maxar Technologies

Another key factor for reliable AI/ML computation is resolution, a measurement of the amount of detail available in an image. Algorithms have to be trained to make a sound judgment call—when the resolution is coarser, the algorithm has less specific information to work with. This is where high-definition (HD) technology brings value. Satellite images processed with Maxar’s proprietary HD technology provide clearer and sharper details: Edges of buildings are more precise, road markings are more detailed and smaller features emerge enabling accurate identification of objects. 

AI/ML also relies on the currency of data. The world changes constantly, which means maps used as the foundational layer for any location-based data must be reliably updated. Having a highly accurate foundational map layer enables applications to fully leverage the information captured within geospatial data as well as the effectiveness of AI to produce consistent results.

India is mostly a country of small-holder farmers, who own less than 2.0 hectares of farmland. How can space based solutions in combination with other technologies help these farmers? Can you share a few examples?

Access to the right data is essential to support informed crop management decisions. The reliance on high-frequency satellite imagery is emerging as a key source of reliable information for precision agriculture. Maxar’s satellite data provides valuable input at each stage of the farm management workflow: planning, early season operations, crop management and harvesting. When planning, imagery collected over a multi-year period can be mined with predictive analytics to help farmers look for in-field patterns and localized trends.

Maxar imagery and geodata coupled with local IOT sensor data can provide insights into soil properties, past crop production and other factors that inform seeding decisions during the early season operations. For crop management, imagery enables agronomists and growers to detect crop health issues, map and direct scouting, localize prescription treatments and monitor crop development.  And for harvesting, satellite imagery can inform effective assessment of kernel moisture content – the key measure for specifying the harvesting start for many crops.

For smaller farm holdings, governments, cooperatives or private aggregators could provide the requisite platforms to exploit these technologies to achieve economies of scale.  

Specifically for the Agriculture sector, Maxar had launched a tool - Sensing4Farming, an Internet of Things (IoT) product for smart, digital, and precision agriculture created in partnership with Vodafone Spain. Please tell us more about that tool. How is it being used; is it being replicated in India? If not, why?

Sensing4Farming in Spain provides crucial insights about crop health to farmers, agronomists and agrobusinesses via computer, mobile phone or tablet. It combines Maxar’s multispectral, high-resolution satellite imagery data with Vodafone’s data from ground-based IOT sensors deployed in crop fields to provide enriched data such as soil moisture, temperature and humidity, among others. Vodafone’s narrowband IoT network then connects all the sensors to quickly send data to the SITI4Farmer agriculture software platform.

Prawn Cultivation along the Chilika Lake
Prawn Cultivation along the Chilika Lake
Prawn Cultivation along the Chilika Lake, Odisha captured using WV02 Sensor, Maxar Technologies; (top) RGB, (bottom) NIR; Source: Maxar Technologies

AI/ML algorithms analyze the ground- and space-based data and extract information that enables farmers to make decisions with confidence, know when and where to water or fertilize crops, when to proactively protect crops from pests and blight, and when is the right time to harvest. These actions ultimately lead to higher crop yields and increased efficiency for farms.

There have been attempts to utilize satellite imagery and IOT for precision farming in India, but these have been small proofs of concept. Some state governments have set up dashboards to monitor and estimate multi-crop agriculture in their states and provide targeted advice to farmers using ISRO IRS data. The full potential has not yet been harnessed due to restrictions on very high-resolution imagery procurement under the current Remote Sensing Data policy.

The new farm laws of India provide a significant opportunity to organized farmers and crop aggregators to exploit technology as they liberalize contract farming and aggregation by private parties. The draft new Geospatial policy and Space policy under consideration by the central government would provide the required liberalization to access cutting-edge satellite technology and products that can enable precision farming.

Would you agree that given the critical point we are at, in Earth's history, we cannot continue with business-as-usual. Given the need for us to re-think about how we live and work, how can India leverage space technology to create a smarter and a more sustainable future?

We live in an exciting time in Earth’s history; mankind now has the means to expand its influence beyond Earth. While major strides have been taken by governments in the past like those led by ISRO, NASA, Roskosmos, and many others, the lead has now been taken over by private industry initiatives with the likes of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. It is time now for private players in the Indian industry to exploit the potential of space domain. Space technologies can provide the scale, speed and accuracy required for a range of areas from national security, disaster management, environment monitoring and agriculture to infrastructure planning and monitoring, telecommunications, automotive and location services in a cost-effective, sustainable manner.

Already, there are major initiatives being taken by government and industry. The Indian space industry has set up an association, ISpA, to promote and represent its interests while the government is actively restructuring its governance of the space domain with several policy initiatives in consultation with industry around space-based communication, remote sensing and space transportation. All these policies have an overarching enabling flavor of Atmanirbhar Bharat while providing a level playing field globally.

India could lead the world in the space domain by leveraging its capability, experience, skills and cost advantage.