Lag­ging be­hind

ISRO lags be­hind other space agen­cies in the pa­tents it holds, a sign that it needs to ramp up tech­no­log­i­cal prow­ess


ISRO lags be­hind other space agen­cies in the pa­tents it holds, a sign that it needs to ramp up tech­no­log­i­cal prow­ess

IN­DIA'S SPACE pro­gramme pro­vokes the pre­dictable kbut­ter-ver­sus-gunsy de­bate that sur­rounds any foray by a de­vel­op­ing coun­try into high-cost sec­tors where the re­turns are not tan­gi­ble. The cen­so­ri­ous­ness is un­der­stand­able when a coun­try with the largest num­ber of mal­nour­ished chil­dren in the world sets aside siz­able funds for de­vel­op­ing mis­siles.

But what of the space pro­gramme? Who can dis­re­gard the con­tri­bu­tion of the In­dian Space Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion (isro) to so much of our daily lives? isro satel­lites pro­vide ser­vices in com­mu­ni­ca­tions, weather fore­cast­ing, disas­ter warn­ing, ocean mon­i­tor­ing and in smaller mea­sure to ed­u­ca­tion. These are ser­vices that would have come with a stiff fee if In­dia had to pur­chase them. Yet, isro’s in­ter­plan­e­tary for­ays such as the Chan­drayaan mis­sion to ex­plore the lu­nar at­mos­phere and the more re­cent Mars Or­biter Mis­sion have come in for much crit­i­cism as be­ing a waste of money. The re­frain in parts of the west­ern world has been that In­dia’s level of poverty did not war­rant send­ing a costly space­craft like the Man­galyaan to the red planet. More so, be­cause it had no sci­en­tific or so­cial value and was merely a tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ment.

Sen­si­tive to these charges—made at home too by for­mer isro bosses—In­dia has made much of the fact that Man­galyaan, which cre­ated his­tory by be­ing suc­cess­ful at its very first launch in 2014, cost very lit­tle com­pared to sim­i­lar mis­sions. It spent just US $74 mil­lion, com­pared to US $670 mil­lion by nasa of the US on its Mars ex­plo­ration pro­gramme chris­tened maven. As Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi said point­edly, isro spent less on Man­galyaan than the pro­duc­ers of the Hol­ly­wood space fantasy Grav­ity did (US $119 mil­lion)! But then its pay­load was min­i­mal at 15 kg com­pared to the 65 kg of com­plex in­stru­men­ta­tion that maven car­ried.

Are clipped costs the in­trin­sic ad­van­tage that isro en­joys as it cob­bles to­gether well-tested com­po­nents in its launches? That is an edge that comes from cheaper labour—our sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers are paid a frac­tion of what their west­ern coun­ter­parts get—and parts. This ques­tion fol­lows from read­ing a global re­port that showed isro has too thin a patent port­fo­lio un­like the US, Ger­man and Ja­panese space agen­cies. While nasa has 2,865 pa­tents, the Ger­man Aero­space Cen­tre dlr comes next with 2,307, fol­lowed by the Ja­pan Aero­space Ex­plo­ration Agency jaxa with 573. isro’s tally is put at a measly 178, although the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s web­site claims “more than 270 pa­tents”.

A con­fir­ma­tion about isro’s not-so-im­pres­sive per­for­mance com­pared to other agen­cies comes from an In­dian study done re­cently by the Ra­jiv Gandhi School of In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty Law at iit-Kharag­pur and the csir’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Sci­ence Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and In­for­ma­tion Re­sources, Delhi. In the first anal­y­sis of isro’s pa­tents, the re­port says the or­gan­i­sa­tion has shown “av­er­age level per­for­mance” on the num­ber of pa­tents it has se­cured—an in­di­ca­tor of the tech­ni­cal prow­ess of the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Even though isro is among the top seven coun­tries with space pro­grammes, “it has not got the num­bers in terms of its pa­tents or in a broader term, in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, a mea­gre sum as com­pared to space agen­cies like nasa, the Euro­pean Space Agency esa, jaxa and the like.”

Look­ing at isro’s patent record over the past four decades, the re­port notes that of the 23 cen­tres that come un­der its am­bit, it were the Satel­lite Cen­tres of Ben­galuru and Ahmed­abad, and the Vikram Sarab­hai Space Cen­tre in Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram that have con­trib­uted most of the pa­tents. How­ever, the agency works not just on space re­lated in­ven­tions, but has also in­vested a great deal in other ar­eas of tech­nol­ogy, that may ben­e­fit space tech­nol­ogy di­rectly or in­di­rectly. “And if not, the in­ven­tions have found their need else­where.”

Ne­ces­sity is, un­doubt­edly, the mother of all in­ven­tion. In isro’s case, how­ever, this has not en­hanced its IP pro­file de­spite its laud­able achieve­ments.„


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