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View from India: Of superfast trains and bikes

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Newer forms of transport have given a fresh perspective to connectivity. Speed, comfort and sleek designs are among the hallmarks and technology has made the journey memorable.

India continues to flex its muscle into space to become more visible in the global space economy. Friendly policies have opened the skies for the private sector’s entry into space. Independent nodal agency Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) acts as a regulator-enabler for the space domain. The government, IN-SPACe, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) along with private players will explore possibilities of space based activities. As per media reports, around 27 private companies have approached the Centre with space proposals to build vehicles, satellites and offer space mission services.

A liberalised space sector attracts investments that go beyond aerospace and defence (A&D) sector and satellite communications (SATCOM) technologies. Any investment that goes into space will require software and hardware inputs. Indirectly, it will open up software and hardware jobs on ground, besides expanding the tribe of space-tech companies. Another dimension is that commercial satellite images enable socio economic development. This in turn, can create avenues for startups, space tech research and academia, and MSMEs offering space services, manufacturing facilities and testing centres. In short, space exploration is not just about missions to the Moon and Mars.

ISRO is the primary space agency of the Indian government. Earlier in the year, it blasted PSLV-C51 into space. Flagged off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, PSLV-C51 or the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was carrying 19 payloads: Brazil’s 637-kg Amazonia-1 (its primary passenger) plus 18 co-passenger satellites.

An e-copy of the Bhagavad Gita (Holy Hindu Scripture) was saved on an SD-card, as well as a picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was engraved on one of the satellite panels.

Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), responsible for the development of technology for use by the military, is always pursuing R&D. One of its breakthrough technologies is the development of near-isothermal forging technology for aero engines. DRDO’s Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL) has arrived at this technology. Globally India is now recognised for its manufacturing capabilities of such critical aero-engine components.

DRDO has conducted the maiden test launch of the Akash-NG missile. This is a new generation surface-to-air missile. The trial has succeeded on parameters like Command and Control system, onboard avionics and aerodynamic configuration.

DRDO’s other offering ASMI is India’s first indigenous machine pistol. Developed with the Indian Army, ASMI is expected to replace 9mm pistols in the defence forces.

Other highlights follow. The Air India’s direct route flight from San Francisco to Bangalore is historic. It’s not just because it was the airline’s inaugural flight from San Francisco to Bangalore. It was also notable because it was stewarded by an all-women pilot team, viz. Capt. Zoya Aggarwal, Capt. Papagari Thanmai, Capt. Akansha Sonaware and Capt. Shivani. The 17-hour flight crossed the North Pole and flew a distance of over 16,000 km. The route saved 10 tonnes of fuel.

Whether it’s DRDO, ISRO or airlines, in summary, all this indicates that the A&D industry may have to increase its headcount to meet the upcoming requirements of the industry. It would be nice if the NextGen workforce is a mixed representation of the city-bred and those from less developed parts of the country. That means the not-so-economically affluent regions require upgrading. Youngsters could be skilled to keep pace with the new brigade. Right from school, AI-IoT technologies need to be introduced along with practical orientation. Science-based project work could become a channel for innovative ideas.

When we look at public transport, new age connectivity options are in the offing. We now have flying taxis or air taxis that may well transform personal mobility. These taxis ply on a particular sector a couple of times in a day and operate on a per seat basis. Commuters can hop into a flying taxi that will take them on a specific route to the desired location. Of course, all this may be possible under the drone policy. As it’s just been launched this year, a beginning has been made with personal mobility. Startups are working possibilities of running air taxis on sustainable biofuel. Considering aviation contributes greenhouse gas emission, alternatives such as biofuel, electric or hybrid ones help lower the carbon footprint. Many of these startups have designed air taxis that are different from the conventional fixed wing aircraft. They come in various shapes and sizes, some even look sporty. 

It would be nice if these taxis become a choice of emergency services. After all, it offers hassle-free commute with very little travel time. And some of these flying taxis are being conceptualised to be compact enough to fly in high speed. Wishfully, just as we have taxis on road, we will have taxis flying high in the skies.

What people can look forward to are the superfast trains. India is home to quite a few of them and they may become alternatives to air travel for many travelers. Take the case of Train 18 or Vande Bharat Express. As the country’s fastest engineless self-propelled train, it is believed to reduce travelling time by 15 per cent. High-speed train Gatimaan Express plies at the speed of 160km per hour. Fire alarms, bio-toilets, automatic sliding doors and GPS-based passenger information system are its other highlights. Then there’s the Mumbai-New Delhi Rajdhani Express covering a distance of 1,384 km and the New Delhi-Kanpur Shatabdi Express covers a distance of 440km. Both clock in 140km per hour. They pack in goodies like morning/evening snacks, bottled water, tea and coffee, soup, meals and ice-cream.

Other than that, the South Central Zone (SCR) of the Indian Railways has converted some of the existing express trains to the superfast category. These trains along with many other high-tech ones connect to tourist destinations.

Chug along to a new avatar of coaches in the Mumbai-New Delhi Rajdhani Express. Intelligent sensor-based systems, hallmarks of its Tejas smart coaches, are for enhanced passenger experience.

Along with these trains, the railway stations too have undergone an overhaul. The accent is on security and a beginning has been made with the installation of high-tech internet-based video surveillance system at 269 railway stations. Then the central control monitoring room has been activated in 10 zones of the country.

Vistadome coaches have been introduced in the Bangalore-Mangalore route and Mumbai-Pune sector. Vistadome coaches have the potential to attract tourists especially as the train traverses through scenic spots and natural beauty. 

Perhaps we can chug along to a situation when school-college students may be exposed to railway technology. Strategic investments may transform the rail sector. There could come a time when train designs become sleeker and compact. Technology combined with design aesthetics could incorporate features that enhance the speed of the trains. Could it be possible that the interiors sport an eco-friendly flavor? The natural resources may be put to use.

The Government of Karnataka (GoK) has unveiled a new policy for e-bike taxi services in the state. This initiative is expected to open out employment opportunities for e-bike taxi drivers. Entrepreneurs may get a chance to groom into e-bike taxi aggregators. Besides that, it is likely to lower traffic congestion issues. Overall the endeavour seems to be a move towards improving urban mobility without increasing the carbon footprint.  

Electric vehicles (EVs) seem to have got a push as the government has given a nod of approval for the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme. PLI is for promoting battery storage. A sum of Rs 18,100 crore has been allocated for the scheme. The vision is to promote the 'Make in India' programme by encouraging the domestic market. The National Programme on Advanced Chemistry Cell (ACC) Battery Storage is projected to be an investment platform. The manufacturing capacity is expected to strengthen the green growth. The drive is hoped to be eco-friendly as local materials like copper and bauxite may be put to use.

Smart automotive may be the way ahead.  For a larger adoption of smart mobility, a wide range of web applications could be packaged for better digital user experience. A QR code may have to be scanned to make many of them work. The road ahead offers opportunities for mapping and location data providers. They can customise end-to-end fleet management solutions for connected vehicles and in-vehicle infotainment. Linguistic diversity is another dimension which can unfold new avenues for connected vehicles as they expand their regional footprint. While connected cars are the future, the existing cars can also be retrofitted to become smart and connected through a telematics platform. This segment is expected to grow as the regular cars can be connected to the Internet and fitted with IoT sensors and cameras. 

All this requires an ecosystem, whereby garages are projected to become intelligent. Quite like the automotive, the garages too need an overhaul. The transformation could incorporate digital customer database as well as vehicle history. There may be scope for integrated garage admin software along with cloud applications.

In spite of all, the auto industry is in a tight spot, a situation created by chip crunch. The shortage of semiconductors has put a strain on electronic components. Though there is a demand, auto makers are compelled to slow the pace of shopfloor production. But then the chip shortage may not be resolved very soon. In order to keep production lines abreast, the usage of microchips is being reduced. Cars are being made without many features such as the infotainment system, navigation system and single remote key.

With tighter inventory and strained supply, the price of components involved in the making of chips has gone up. This in turn, can add up to the overall cost of the vehicle. Globally, the pandemic has disrupted the supply chain. This can be attributed to the fact that professionals are working from home, so the demand for electronic goods has gone up. Regrettably, the investments in chip-building capacities are not (yet) aligned with the demand.

Perhaps this could be an opportunity for automakers to venture into the semiconductor segment. They could gear up to bring in semiconductor capabilities or establish semiconductor units.

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