How a bootstrapped space-tech startup monitors space debris with its system to enable a collision-free path

Digantara Research and Technologies was chosen among the top eight startups in the world by the International Astronautical Federation Committee.

If Google Maps apprise us of traffic snarls and accidents to make our journeys safer and smoother, ever wondered about outer space and the debris that satellites and rockets encounter?

With Elon Musk’s launch of spaceship SpaceX recently, this question might become more frequent as space travel becomes a pastime for the affluent. According to an analysis, the specific space debris monitoring market will be worth $2.9 billion by the end of 2022.

With more than 10,000 bits of debris in space, space-tech startup Digantara Research and Technologies’ innovative idea tracks and analyses space debris in Low Earth orbits (LEOs). The satellite project hopes to secure long-term spaceflight safety. Musk would be happy with that, and with DRT’s focus on the global space debris monitoring and removal market, satellite providers have a solution at hand.

According to Co-founder Anirudh Sharma,

“The Earth observation and traffic monitoring segment of the Global Cubesat market is projected to grow from $152 million in 2018 to $375 million by 2023, at a CAGR of 19.87 percent from 2018 to 2023. Our technology is very important for launch providers and small satellite developers as this can enable them to have space situational awareness across the LEO Ecosystem through our data and API.”

Anirudh Sharma (Left) with Rahul Rawat (Right)

An award and thereafter

It wasn’t an easy task to counter issues faced in outer space. In the beginning of 2019, the space-tech startup went on to participate at an event with 523 other participants of which 120 teams qualified for the grand finale. DRT was the only team to represent a startup working in the space domain.

Anirudh recalls,

“For our concept and technology, we got on spot investment offers by a couple of investors, however we chose to be bootstrapped and work on the progress of the mission by investing self-generated funds.”

Their unique idea and expertise helped them secure an award in the competition.

A brief history of debris in space

A substantial fraction of debris is in the 1-10 cm range, and it orbits the Earth in LEOs. It moves with a hypervelocity of 27,400 kilometres per hour, and much of it can neither be tracked nor mapped. Even a minuscule piece presents a serious hazard for satellites, spacecraft and spacewalking astronauts, and DRT wanted to make Space safe.

Rahul and Sai Ganesh working along on the module

The Uttarakhand-based startup developed an Orbit Space Debris Monitor using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology which detects and maps any space debris less than 5 cm in size.

The Orbit Space Debris Monitor can be integrated with any satellite or vehicle to avoid collisions.

How this space clearing began

It all began in 2018 when Anirudh (21) initiated a student satellite team. The focus was to design and develop nanosatellites for ISRO’s Student Satellite Programme. Anirudh who was in his third year bachelors’ (in technology with a major in cyber security) was joined by Rahul Rawat (20) who was also doing bachelors’ in technology (computer science engineering with IoT as a major).

Towards the end of 2018, Rahul and Anirudh co-founded DRT to address specific issues with their expertise in space technologies. About the inception of DRT, Anirudh, co-founder and CEO explains to Yourstory,

“When we started developing systems for spacecrafts in India, we realised that there were gaps in the international space market that we could fill. We took this opportunity to get involved in development. At first, we worked on design as freelancers from India. The money generated went towards the initial investment to register a company in India.”

Sikindar Vatturi, CTO, DRT

Yet, one question troubled them - how could they secure satellite services from man-made debris moving at a speed of eight km to 10 km per second?

“Our lives are dependent on the capability of satellites in orbit. With Indian Space Agency initiating a global concern about space debris at the International Astronautical Congress 2018, time was right for an Indian startup to find a solution to this problem,” adds Anirudh.

Providing a collision-free path solution

The Orbit Space Debris Monitor developed by DRT is a hardware and software-based system. The hardware consists of a flight space-based laser and sensor system that tackles any debris less than 5 cm in size in space.

The software system consists of algorithms which collect raw data from the hardware stack, and process it into a debris map which can be used for operational support, rapid orbital determination and ongoing orbit awareness. This Orbit Space Debris Monitor can also be integrated with any type or size of satellite be it the 1 U CubeSats to humongous multi-million-dollar satellites.

Anirudh explains,

“The first checkpoint for our mission is to map space debris precisely. This will be done by deploying a constellation of satellites, scanning and mapping space junk in the LEO ecosystem. With real-time scanning, a real-time map will be produced.”

The precise path/orbit predictions will enable customers to manoeuvre satellites and avoid collisions predicted in its defined course. The Orbit Space Debris Monitor is a plug-in-and-play Orbit Space Debris Monitor integrated within the satellite, and it acts as in-situ space debris monitor.

In-situ resource utilisation is a practice of collection, processing, storing and use of materials found or manufactured on other astronomical objects.

According to Anirudh, “In addition to the Orbit Space Debris Monitor, we also have a set of ground stations we are currently working on to convert into a network. The data will be centralised on our servers. Based on user requirement, real-time data or pre-stored data can be accessed by the customer.”

The team and support

The space-tech startup has successfully generated revenue worth Rs 6 lakh in the second quarter of 2019.

Anirudh says, “DRT has been approved by Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises. Also, as an MSME, a project to design test and prototype a space debris monitor has been presented to IISc-COE MSME. The same has been accepted with support provided by the IISc COE.”

The DRT team consists of Sai Ganesh (23) who is lead scientist and mission architect. Sikindar Vatturi (21), a mechanical engineering graduate from LPU is chief designer and engineer. Tanveer Ahmed, a 21-year-old aerospace engineering student from RV College of Engineering who joined later is now leading the technical command of the company as CTO.

In terms of expertise, DRT also has expertise from Dr TGK Murthy, ex-programme director, ISRO as advisor. Cdr Ronnie Nader, EXA – space operation director, chairman International Astronautical Federation GRULAC.

Team DRT has also been chosen among the top eight startups in the world by the IAF committee, and would pitch their ideas at the International Astronautical Congress 2019 to be held in Washington DC which will be held from 21 – 25 October.

The idea that might clear outer space

Before entering the commercial market, the DRT team is working on a demonstration project which consists of an Orbit Space Debris Monitor that can be integrated with satellite constellations in collaboration with Lovely Professional University in Punjab.

According to Rahul, COO, DRT, the constellation is expected to launch by 2020-end, and will have a pre-mapped debris area.

“The Orbit Space Debris Monitor testing will be done on the pre-mapped data, and conducted by tracking the already tracked particles in the LEO ecosystem, and then comparing it with the pre-existing data. This methodology will be implemented to remove marginal errors in the algorithms via Machine Learning,” says Rahul.

The dilemma of space debris

As satellites are programmed to land on Earth, manmade debris from mission-related operations, accidents or intentional creation possess a serious threat as they can remain in space forever.

Anirudh explains,

“Space debris is found in all of the Earth’s orbits starting from 300 km in LEO to geostationary orbits. It gets trapped around the Earth due to a gravitational pull, and there is little to no chance of them flowing out of the orbit.”

Moreover, collisional chain reactions contribute to the increase in debris in the orbit which outpaces debris mitigation efforts as well as the natural rate at which debris’ undergo orbital decay in the Earth’s atmosphere.

How DRT does it?

Initially when an object is tracked, the precise location of the coordinates and time are noted. Later, this data is matched with existing data present in the database of space objects. If the data is matched, it is put into the category of already identified objects. If the data is absent, then it is considered as new debris to be tracked.

Representation of how DRT's module would work and map the space debris

Market and customer opportunities

The space-tech startup is hoping to provide a solution to the challenges in space and Earth observation and traffic monitoring segment of the Global Cubesat market. DRT hopes to sell its Orbit Space Debris Monitors to satellite providers for real-time proximity alerts. In the future, it will also design and manufacture satellite structure and custom avionics for customers across the globe.


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