NavIC, Army, ISRO
The army’s successful trial run with the NavIC chips could not only end armed forces' reliance on foreign government-controlled global navigation satellite systems but change the satellite-based navigation services used by both the government and private sectors I Representational image: PTI

Indian Army looks beyond US-owned GPS that ditched it in Kargil war

An Indian Army team, in pursuit of a terrorist hideout in Kashmir, recently found that the target the GPS-driven gadgets pointed out was far off the mark. Needless to say, the operation was a failure.

An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone of the Indian Air Force crashed on a paddy field in Punjab’s Gurdaspur a couple of years ago, ostensibly because the Global Positioning System (GPS) signal was lost.

Worst, when Pakistan troops entrenched themselves in the high Himalayan mountains during the 1999 Kargil war, the Indian armed forces wanted GPS data of the region. But the US, which controlled the GPS, denied access to India. This, even though the Indian Army, only a year earlier, had procured the space-based radio navigation technology from the US.

Almost a quarter century after that denial, the Indian Army is finally trying to get rid of its dependence on the GPS for military navigation by introducing a home-grown technology.

Also read: Army working on system to provide composite operational picture

Pilot project

As a pilot project, the army in April procured for one of its infantry units 400 micro-processor chips developed by a Bengaluru-based space technology company to make India’s own satellite navigation system functional.

The procurement process kickstarted with the company handing over a chip to the Chief of Defence Staff, General Anil Chauhan, in the presence of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Chairman Dr Samir V Kamat and Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari in New Delhi last month.

According to defence ministry sources, the armed forces are in the process of procuring 10,000 such chips that form the core of the Navigation for Indian Constellation (NavIC) or the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

The NavIC, designed with a constellation of eight satellites to provide accurate positioning in India and around the Indian subcontinent, was in orbit by 2018 but its utility remained by and large unutilized due to the absence of a multi-frequency and multi-constellation processor (signal receiver) developed specifically for it.

Watch: She talks, we listen: Meet the face behind your GPS Google Maps voice

NavIC chips

“The NavIC chips developed by Elena Geo Systems Pvt Ltd have filled the gap by providing end-to-end hardware and software components to India’s own navigation satellite system,” the founder of the Bengaluru-based company, Lt Col (retired) VS Velan, told The Federal.

“The Elena module conforms to the requirements laid down by ISO for IRNSS/NavIC signal reception and is developed based on a special algorithm for use across India and neighbouring areas/countries.

“Besides, the military-grade module can be used in a wide array of applications on land, air and water. For the defence forces, the chip can be used in handheld devices, for operational logistics, in ships, submarines, radars and drones, and artillery weapons and weapons platforms,” he added.

The NavIC uses two frequency bands — the L5 band and the S-Band — making the system more accurate and reliable. The GPS functions only on the L band.

Moreover, all the eight NavIC satellites are specifically placed for exclusive coverage of India and its surrounding areas unlike the GPS.

Also read: How GPS toll collection will replace FASTags, end toll plazas

Trial run

The GPS is a constellation of 24 satellites for global coverage. But hardly three to four of its satellites cover India and its surrounding territories, claimed Velan.

The army’s successful trial run with the NavIC chips could not only end armed forces’ reliance on foreign government-controlled global navigation satellite systems but change the satellite-based navigation services used by both the government and private sectors.

The Elena is in the process of patenting the technology, and the product that has been developed by its dedicated R&D team.

India started considering developing its own Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) soon after the Kargil war.

After several deliberations and planning, then Defence Minister AK Antony announced in June 2010 the formation of an Integrated Space Cell.

Velan was included as one of the members of the cell with the specific responsibility to explore the navigation needs of the armed forces keeping in mind the changing dynamics of space technology.

“The government gave the approval for the NavIC project in 2011, and the ISRO was entrusted with the task of developing the system,” Velan recalled.

Also read: How drones proliferated in India — from R-Day parade to drug delivery

Signal receiver

Being closely associated with the project, the officer realised that the NavIC on its own would not be of much use unless a signal receiver or processor is developed specifically for its use.

The ISRO at that time was concentrating mainly on how to put the NavIC satellites on orbit. So, Velan decided to join hands with the IIT Kharagpur to develop the much-needed processor.

The IIT incubated the Elena Geo Systems in 2012.

“I formed it as a research and development company with my family’s money. Several of my colleagues from the army too came forward to support the venture,” he added.

The company, now a sister concern of the Delhi-based Indian Space Association, has the capability to produce 100,000 chips a month.

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