Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bhuvan redux

A Ikonosos image of the Trombay Nuclear Plant from year 2000.

On Wednesday, ISRO launched Bhuvan, its version of Google Earth. Couldn't help remembering a story I did in 2001, presumably the first Indian report on satellite imagery. Published in Hindustan Times front page January 2001.

Here it goes

No hiding from the eye in the sky

Nandagopal Rajan

Chandigarh, January 20

It's like having a God's-eye-view of the world. From images of Indian and Pakistan Army tanks deployed on the western front to pictures of the new variety of orchids that your neighbour planted on her roof, you can view them on your home PC.
With today's advanced remote sensing satellites you can order images of any spot on earth -- for a price. For instance, Space Imaging Corporation's offers images of the Taj Mahal and of the National Capital Region for as low as $10 per picture, depending on quality and resolution.

A simple search of "Calcutta remote sensing images" on the Net will give you high-resolution images that show anything from the Eden Gardens to the airport. Or if you want something more adventuresome, there's an image available of the Trombay atomic power plant from an IKONOS satellite.

The main players in the satellite imagery market are the US-based Space Imaging and SPOT, a French company. Though they are regulated to a certain extent by their governments, most of the dozen-odd other players are free to sell the "high-resolution, all-seeing and all-weather imagery" and will train their satellites on the area of your choice.

With companies now selling one-metre and half-metre resolution images capable of showing what you have on your picnic table, we are venturing out of the "mutually assured observation era" where governments controlled all remote sensing imagery.

That's a major cause for worry. Unrestricted access means that terrorists and your enemy can get hold of them too. Pakistan, for instance, doesn't have to send up a satellite to obtain images of Indian Army manoeuvres. The Pakistani generals just have to ring up Spot or one of the smaller firms.

The smaller companies are likely to sell to the non-institutional buyer. While they claim that mapping, agriculture, forestry, geology, urban and rural management etc are their areas of specialisation, it cannot be overlooked that the lure of the lucre won't stop at least some of them from zeroing in on vital installations around the world. "Technology and the market are in tandem. We should frame our defence strategy keeping this reality in mind," says defence analyst Commodore Uday Bhaskar. "Instead of trying to stop it with draconian measures, we should use it to our advantage. If our vital installations are on online, so are China's and Pakistan's," he says.

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