Kerala Technology
AgniKul signals the rise of Tamil Nadu

The launch of Agnibaan rocket is a landmark event for the Indian space sector. Photo courtesy: AgniKul

AgniKul signals the rise of Tamil Nadu

Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on June 04, 2024
Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on June 04, 2024

Last week was a big leap for the Indian space sector as Chennai-based startup AgniKul Cosmos successfully tested its rocket, creating several landmarks before the 18-metre-high rocket plunged into the sea.

The number of firsts it recorded with the launch from its own launching site – the only private one in India – at Sriharikota is several. The achievements are notable from using cost-effective 3D printing to build the Agnibaan rocket to using commercially available fuel for its semi-cryo engine.

Others worth mentioning: Umamaheswari K became the first woman to become the project director of an Indian space launch vehicle while Saraniya Periyaswamy was the vehicle director.

The AgniKul team displayed tonnes of patience and nerves of steel, as they had to abort the launch four times for different reasons. But all’s well that ends well, as they say.

Now, the startup founded by Srinath Ravindran, Moin SPM, and Professor Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy is ready for its next step: sending a rocket into orbit and placing satellites.

AgniKul’s spectacular achievements also signal the rise of Tamil Nadu as a key centre of spacetech in India. Apart from attracting major Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)centres, Tamil Nadu has moved ahead at warp speed to create several facilities to nurture the aerospace sector.

Meanwhile, Kerala, the cradle of Indian rocketry, is still struggling to establish a dedicated spacetech park, which the government promised years ago. Recent reports indicate the planned K-Space facilities are years away, given the current pace at which it is proceeding.

ISRO is establishing a launchpad for smaller satellites at Kulasekarapattinam in the Thoothukudi district and a Propulsion Complex at Mahendragiri in Tirunelveli district. Soon after the announcements, Tamil Nadu quickly put in place plans for a space park in Kulasekarapattinam and started implementing other components to develop an ecosystem for spacetech industries.

They formulated a policy to encourage aerospace and defence industries and swiftly acquired thousands of acres of land for different tech campuses related to these sectors.

As part of the defence industrial corridor announced four years ago, the Tamil Nadu Industrial Corporation (Tidco) established five nodes: Chennai, Coimbatore, Hosur, Salem, and Trichy, each focusing on different areas such as heavy metal fabrication, electronics, and engineering.

A key role is being played by IIT Madras, which has become a magnet for deep tech startups, including AgniKul, which was incubated there.

Compare this with Kerala’s plan to make the state a spacetech hub or turn Trivandrum into a Space City. There was no shortage of lofty claims, but the papers related to it get weighed down by Jupiter-like gravity in some of Kerala’s government departments.

The much-touted Space Park project announced in 2019 never took off, as a political scandal brought down everything linked to it. A much-scaled-down version of the project, called K-Space, was announced in December 2022 with a seed capital of 2 crore rupees and a promise of 19 acres of land from the Techno Park area.

As we hit the midpoint of 2024, there is very little to show on the ground.

A recent report in Malayala Manorama said the first phase of the hub is being constructed on 3.5 acres in PallipuramTechnocity, Thiruvananthapuram, with an outlay of 241.38 crore rupees, of which 229.30 crore rupees comes from Nabard's Rural Infrastructure Development Fund.

The report also says, “another 11.5 acres of land has been identified for K-Space. But as there are no roads to that place, officials are now engaged in discussions about it”.

So, basically, a piece of land belonging to the Trivandrum Technopark has been identified and papers for its handover have been processed in the 18 months since the announcement.

It would take a hefty sum to lay infrastructure like roads and powerlines in places like what has been identified for the park. Given the financial crunch that the Kerala government is facing, don’t hold your breath for that to happen soon.

To build facilities in the allotted area would take another three to five years if one goes by the usual pace of the government projects in Kerala.

Luckily, the officials have managed to provide an office for K-Space and form a team of about a dozen people to start the work which would mostly consist of chasing papers stuck in different government departments.

So the dream of developing a park dedicated to spacetech remains where it started – on paper.

Like a broken record, we’ve been describing the historic advantages of Trivandrum to become a key player in spacetech, thanks to the presence of premier space agencies like ISRO, VSSC, and the Liquid Propulsion Centre in the city.

Despite the city being the starting point of the Indian space industry, Kerala companies don’t execute even 10 percent of what ISRO outsources to the private sector, according to the Chamber of Aerospace Industries.

This forum says if a proper ecosystem is put in place, the state can benefit immensely as India opens up its space sector to private companies.

The future market is not confined to Indian space agencies and private players but goes well beyond. Countries like Australia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and others are also looking to develop their indigenous space programmes.

The presence of thousands of spacetech experts in the city has already attracted the attention of foreign players, with firms like French firm Safran and Australian firm Hex20 establishing bases here.

But given the pace at which other states move ahead, new players coming into the space – both Indian and foreign – cannot be blamed if they choose places like Tamil Nadu over Kerala.

The government of Kerala announced space sector as a focus area in its new industrial policy unveiled in 2023, showing that people in power know its importance.

However, those involved in major state projects say that despite such directives, we are stuck with a government bureaucracy that considers procedures sacrosanct and ties down proposals with archaic laws and regulations.

As states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana, and Gujarat roll out plans to woo spacetech firms, Kerala needs to learn a lesson about expediting projects.

As Indian Space Association director Satyam Kushwaha said in an interview in March 2024, an agile regulatory approach aligned to industry growth is key to seizing new opportunities.

The growth of the space sector is not confined to upstream firms engaged in rocket launches and satellite building. Experts point out that data from such satellites could soon become an integral part of downstream technology firms in areas like agriculture, urban development, insurance, and banking.

Spacetech development will be as big as the IT revolution of the 1990s and Trivandrum is ideally placed to tap into that if a proper ecosystem is built here, Hex20 CEO Lloyd Jacob Lopez had told TikTalk Newsletter last year.

But the “if” is getting bigger and bigger as months drag on.



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