View from India: Space tech boosts rise of Brand India

India’s global ranking as a nation brand has risen from 9th place to 7th place this year, according to the independent consultancy Brand Finance. With a brand value of US$2.6tn, the nation has witnessed a 19 per cent growth.

In an effort to uplift industries hit by an economic slowdown, Finance Minister (FM) Nirmala Sitharaman has announced measures to slash corporate taxes. FM has urged industries to leverage technology to reduce “Time to Export or Turn-around time.” Processes will become seamless as export clearances will be digitised to eliminate manual services.

As against this background, we do anticipate investments to increase in the wake of US-China trade tariffs. Chinese telecom companies have made a beginning. For players like Xiaomi, Vivo, Oppo, Lenovo and Oneplus, India is a promising market. Local production and all mobile related allied services are expected to get a boost.

Moon Mission

It is destination Moon, as India this year embarked on its second lunar mission to explore the uncharted south pole of the celestial body. Its spacecraft Chandrayaan-2 developed by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh in July. Its lunar orbiter, the Vikram lander, and the lunar rover Pragyan were all developed in India. Chandrayaan-2 entered lunar orbit, but the Vikram hard-landed within 500m of the designated landing site, so the mission could not succeed.

Yet this is India’s ambitious complex mission, which aimed to study the exosphere, surface as well as the sub-surface of the Moon in a single mission. It resulted in new space-tech insights in the form of throttle-able engines, sensors and algorithms that were developed for the Lander.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described Chandrayaan-2’s Moon journey as an ISRO spirit that’s running through the country.

Appropriately so, as the number of space start-ups is increasing. This can be attributed to the growing demand for low-cost satellites. Space technologies are being explored to make payloads somewhat economical.

Low payloads can be used for industrial applications. Smaller satellites can be commercialised for diverse applications. They can be leveraged for capturing images of crops, geo-spatial patterns and cityscapes. Broadly speaking, their data can throw light on agriculture, weather and urban planning. Even vehicular movements as well as marine life can also be captured.

Going ahead, this will lead to a vendor ecosystem. Once a government-state owned domain, space tech has now become a favourite choice of start-ups. Space-enabled applications include navigation, communications, remote sensing, and science and exploration. What is awaited is the long pending space law which needs to be passed in Parliament. Once this falls into place, start-ups will have a clearer vision of space.

Many of the space start-ups have been incubated in premier educational institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Encouragement also comes from ISRO, the primary space agency of the Indian government.

ISRO has for the first time invited companies to build five polar satellite launch vehicles (PSLVs). This move from ISRO is a means of promoting Make in India, a vision of the Government of India (GoI).

ISRO which is into its 50th year, has opened out new space related avenues. It is in the process of developing a communication-cum-surveillance satellite for the Indian Navy. The satellite which will be ready by 2022 is being readied to keep a vigil on the warships, submarines and aircraft around the Indian Ocean by strengthening the shore-based operations. This 1,589 crore contract between the Indian Navy and ISRO is for the development of Gsat-7R, a new satellite to aid the Gsat-7 or ‘Rukmini’ geostationary naval satellite orbiting since 2013.

India continues to reinforce its space-astronomical capacities. This time round, the Hanle village in the cold desert of Ladakh is in the news. The Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) houses the country’s first robotic space telescope. The telescope has been conceptualised to observe the universe, with its dynamic and transient events. It can capture cosmic events that happen in timescales much shorter than light years or years, days and even hours.

The office at the Hanle village is an outcome of a multi-nation community-oriented activity comprising universities from various parts of the world including UK and the US. Called GROWTH, an acronym for ‘Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen,’ it has been established to observe the universe, with its transient events.

The fact that the Hanle is at an altitude of 4,500 metres, makes it one of the world’s highest astronomical observatories. That’s how it has emerged as a telescope viewing site comprising the Himalayan Chandra Telescope, the gamma-ray array telescope (HAGAR) and the imaging Cherenkov telescope (MACE).

Fintech to enable MSMEs

An inter-ministerial panel on fintech has submitted its final report to the FM. The panel has recommended that a legal framework should be in place to protect consumers when they use digital services. Basically the panel suggests that technologies like AI, blockchain and ML should be leveraged for governance processes, taxation and financial services.

Finance providers require a standardised regulation technology (regtech). The panel suggests that an institutional framework needs to be developed to cater to specific use-cases of supervisory technology (or SupTech), testing, deployment, monitoring and evaluation.

These suggested measures are intended to facilitate the MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises) sector in its finance-related processes. The panel also suggests that Reserve Bank of India (RBI) develops cash-flow based financing for MSMEs.

The development of an open-API (application programme interface) MSME stack based on TReDS (Trade Receivables electronic Discount System) data validated by the Goods and Services Tax Network (GSTN) and a standardised and trusted e-invoice infrastructure designed around TReDS-GSTN integration are among other suggestions. 

Of Robots & Drones

What is interesting is that robots have made their way into a cross section of verticals. We have robots that have doubled up as bearers in restaurants. In its latest avatar, a robot has shaped up as a humanoid robot assisting a teacher. The scene may seem like a sci-fi film, but it’s a thermal physics class at an international school in Bangalore. Conceptualised as Eagle 2.0, the robot is a teacher assistant. Media reports reveal that a collaborative learning model has been created, whereby Eagle 2.0 delivers content with summative assessments.  Hopefully a time will come when robots will assist various verticals. 

Healthcare services in rural and remote locations have been a challenge. This is where drones or unmanned aerial vehicles fit in with their unique offering. All that it requires is a drone to bring the spotlight on to a primary healthcare centre (PHC) in the Tehri district of Uttarakhand in North India. As reported in the media, the drone has flown 36km over the Himalayan terrains to transport blood samples from the PHC to the district hospital. Clearly the time taken by the drone to accomplish this task is much less than the regular commute by road. This has raised hope for health services to be delivered in remote locations. A first move, this drone delivery could be described as a game-changer in the health segment.

Global E-commerce giant Amazon has opened its massive campus in India, which is its first owned campus outside the US. Hyderabad in south India is home to Amazon’s 1.8 million square feet of office space. In terms of total area, the campus is Amazon's single largest building in the world. Spread over 9.5 acres of land, it’s also the largest technology base outside Amazon's headquarters in Seattle. Along with engineers and managers, the Hyderabad campus has software development engineers and machine-learning professionals.

Amazon’s India presence cannot be seen in isolation. Other global retailers like Walmart have also deepened their footprint in the country.

An overview indicates that the supply chain network of e-commerce companies is growing. The companies have scaled up their partnerships with MSMEs and artisans to create a user experience that is personalised in nature.

Let’s look at trends in the overall e-commerce space. Pocket-sized loans from banks are encouraging digital spending in India. Encouragement also comes from mobile-payment apps that give consumers pay-later options.

Smartphones are affordable, and that includes data as well. This is being leveraged by retailers to rope in online customers into their fold. Smartphones are the preferred device for online shopping.

We’ve also seen the rise of ‘Phygital,’ a combination of physical and digital stores as preferred by retailers.  E-commerce itself has given rise to several employment options given the requirements of logistics, inventory management and vendor management.

As per the October 2019 KPMG report titled ‘Disruptive Companies and Business Models’, e-commerce and social networking are the most disruptive business models. In maintaining its position atop the list of most-disruptive business models over the next few years, e-commerce continues to capture attention with its dramatic growth prospects. Global e-commerce spending is expected to increase from $3.5tn in 2019 to $6.5tn in 2023, according to eMarketer.

Social networking was second on the business models list. Similar to e-commerce companies, social media companies are striving to capture ever-larger shares of the consumer’s attention and wallet, with new offerings like exclusive and original content, live sporting events, augmented/virtual reality, educational services, and crypto currencies. As of January 2019, more than three billion people, over 40 per cent of the world’s population, were using social media on mobile devices, according to a report from We Are Social and Hootsuite Media.

Satya Easwaran, partner and head of telecom, media and technology sector for KPMG in India, added that India is seeing a similar trend in technology disrupting business models.  With over one billion mobile subscribers and more than 665 million internet subscriptions, India’s mobile-first economy is shaping the contours of new business models in B2C and B2B businesses.  E-commerce and social networking have changed consumer behaviour, leading traditional business models to innovate and transform. Retail, financial services, and technology are the sectors likely to be most disrupted because of tech innovations.

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