Geomatics and GNSS education in India
Academicians discuss the prospects and challanges
When we talk about Geodesy/ Geomatics education in the country, people normally relate themselves only to remote sensing and GIS with a vague idea of some Surveying practices included. There is hardly any institution in the country where, Geodesy, the mother of all areas in geospatial technology, is covered in a satisfactory manner. Even in several engineering colleges, where geodesy is included in the title of the course, it is essentially principles of surveying which is covered in the garb of geodesy. At PG level, the courses covered are essentially on remote sensing and GIS. It appears that there has been an overselling of the remote sensing and GIS technology, probably because of market forces, absence of any trained faculty pool, and limited understanding of the area geodesy.
There are more than 180 institutions in the country which offer Post Graduate, degree and diploma courses in Geoinformatics today but none of them (except for IIT Kanpur, Anna University, Chennai and one odd other) which offer courses on Geodesy in a satisfactory manner. There is virtually no M Tech level research work in geodesy in last 10 years. Further, not even 5 PhDs have been produced in this area in the last 15 years. The reason may be several fold but important ones are
i. Lack of clarity on understanding the role and significance of geodesy in nation building, study of earth and environment.
ii. Lack of trained/qualified faculty.
iii. Lack of properly equipped labs (equipment being quite expensive).
iv. Overselling of some areas of geospatial technology suggesting that there is hardly any role for geodesy. This situation has produced many mediocre institutions, faculty and students/ manpower who are only familiar using a set of commands in some RS/GIS SW and do not have much depth of the subject in general and geodesy in particular.
v. Lack of standardized curriculum design for Diploma, Bachelors and Masters Courses in all universities, constant training of teachers for upgrading their knowledge, urgent need for infrastructure improvement in these universities etc. as key aspects.
Geodesy education needs special attention from government to bring in the necessary policies, programs, institutional frameworks and networks, career opportunity schemes, etc., so to generate an indigenous pool of expertise in Geodesy. Otherwise, this will become an extinct area devoid of any expertise in the country and virtually no representation at the international fora. MHRD task force identified 6 broad areas for development of geospatial technology (MHRD Report, 2013) But these broad categorization looks apt for the geospatial technology in general, but fails to address teaching, research, capacity building and industry requirements of Geodesy in particular. A careful study of courses and expertise in geodesy from around the world clearly indicates that very strong foundations in mathematics and physics are indeed required for geodesy. Since the field of Geography and Geology without much of Mathematical and computer science background has taken over the subject of Geomatics in the country, the prevailing courses in geospatial technology have probably deliberately ignored this vital basic requirement.
The paucity of geodesy experts in the country has been the key reason for the sorry state of education and research in the field of geodesy the ‘mother of all geospatial science’. It has been observed that geospatial technology is at boom in the nation. Many conferences, workshops, highlevel meetings are being conducted timeto- time to discuss about various issues and the need for establishing various geospatial policies and devoted geospatial groups. However, it is surprising that the base of all the geospatial science and technology has never been discussed and is generally avoided.
Currently, India does not have a welldefined horizontal, vertical and gravity datum. India does not have its precise DEM. The organizations like SOI, NRSC, NGRI, GSI, ONGC, OIL, etc. are collecting their data of interest on a regular basis. However, if there is no National datum defined, then most of these data becomes vague and inappropriate to use and come up with some concrete conclusions. The superstructure fields like geology, remote sensing and GIS have been developed to a great extent in the country without proper consideration to its strong foundation that is, Geodesy.
When we want to discuss the Geodetic Infrastructure in a country we generally dwell on the following:
a. Precise Definition of Horizontal Geodetic Network on which the Country’s Surveying and Mapping is based. The accuracy requirements of all scales of mapping (from large scale maps say 1: 10000 and larger to medium scale 1:25000, 1:50000 and small-scale maps say scale 1:250000 and smaller) are to be met. Its definition generally follows the Surveying Principle of ‘Whole to Part’.
b. Accurate Definition and Realization of a Vertical Datum over which heights of points of the terrain are measured taking care of water flow criterion and inter-visibility of points in the defined height system.
c. Precise Definition and Realization of a Gravity Datum, meeting the accuracy requirements of various applications for which the gravity measurements are made either from terrestrial, airborne or satellite gradiometric methods.
d. Precise Tidal Datum definition, for various Earth and Ocean system studies.
In the present day scenario, we can see an absolute chaos happening in the country. Due to lack of strong leadership from the National Mapping Organization that is Survey of India, every state in the country talks about setting up their own Geodetic network with so many CORS (Continuously Operating GPS reference Stations), Iconic and secondary control stations for Cadastral Surveying in their states. People who do not understand the accuracy aspects of Horizontal and Vertical networks, boast of providing Centimeter accuracy point positions and contours, to the dismay of various experts in the country. If this situation persists, the country will land up in sorry state of affairs, lagging far behind the rest of the countries in the world.
As regards the Student enthusiasm and involvement in GNSS/Geomatics courses, there is no doubt that it has caught the imagination of large section of the student community, thanks mainly to the contribution of Google and location based services provided by the GNSS systems. With Digital India awareness and high speed internet facilities available, students are feeling that the field of Geospatial Technologies can offer a lot, particularly in their employment opportunities. At least in IIT Kanpur where students join from different engineering background in the department of Geoinformatics, feel that with substantive knowledge offered at IITK in the field of Geodesy, GNSS, Lidar, UAV’s, InSAR and Hyper spectral imaging, ample opportunities are there for their employment.
Unlike Western countries like USA, Canada, Germany etc., the educational Institutions in our country do not have any connectivity either with Industry or with Government organizations dealing with Geospatial Data. Government organizations like Survey of India (SOI), National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), Geological Survey of India (GSI), Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Earth System Science Organization (ESSO), Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Ministry of Defence (MoD), Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) should collaborate with educational institutes (IITs, NITs, etc.) for common projects, student exchange, training of the staff, etc. In that event, a positive environment can be generated to reap the fruits of what Modern Geospatial Technologies can offer to the mankind.
Satellite navigation holds immense promise for the future
Satellite-based navigation systems collectively represent all navigation satellite constellations that provide the user with his/her position, velocity and time. Because of their versatility and ease of use, these systems are emerging as a key infrastructure of modern society. Different applications of satellite-based navigation are aircraft approach to landing, marine navigation, land navigation, time keeping in power grids, and financial and telecommunication networks, remote sensing of land, atmosphere, and sea, etc. With the advent of India’s Navic (or Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)), India has a major role to play in this promising area.
However, as with any other new fields, there are challenges to deal with to create awareness among students about the promise this field holds. As an educationist, I notice reservations among students to explore a new field. They are yet to take up this field for further studies.
In my opinion, this could be because of lack of exposure, limited job opportunities, and unavailability of a good number faculty in an institute working in this area. Often, they seek advice of their seniors while selecting a particular field for specialization. Consequently, they show less interest in working in a field that their seniors are not aware of. An additional challenge that I am facing being in Aerospace is that students are less inclined to work in a field related to signal processing as compared to aerodynamics, aircraft structures, and controls and guidance. Again, this is perhaps because they have the opportunity to attend more courses in those fields. While I offer a GNSS course as an elective, so far, select final year students have registered for the course. That said, I am optimistic that over the years they will learn about the immense potential of the field and eventually show interest.
This would be possible when they will hear about the field from their seniors, who are attending my course and doing their project work. Although currently, there are limited job prospects in this field, I feel more job opportunities will open up for persons with knowledge in GNSS once IRNSS becomes fully operational and is extensively used in numerous civil applications. This may motivate more students to embrace satellite navigation as their field of specialization. At present, ISRO is the main organization that funds research on satellite navigation systems. They sponsor projects from academic institutes under the RESPOND programme. I have heard that National Atmospheric Research Laboratory in Tirupati is also looking for ways to use IRNSS and other GNSS signals for atmospheric studies and remote sensing.
They also fund select projects through the Respond programme. Among private companies, Accord Software and Systems in Bangalore develops indigenous GNSS receivers and may be interested in engaging in collaborations with academia.
In my opinion, major areas that can have industry-academia collaborations would be algorithm development for accurate, robust and reliable positioning, integration of IRNSS with other sensors as well as in smart phones, novel applications of IRNSS including ones that require high precision, accuracy and reliability, atmospheric studies using multi- GNSS signals, remote sensing, etc.
In conclusion, satellite navigation holds immense promise for the future, but consistent efforts are needed on the part of a GNSS educationist to make students familiarized with its prospects and challenges through course and project work so that they take genuine interest and contribute to this field.