Focus on commercial use of NavIC, ISRO’s future satellites to get additional frequency

With an aim to promote civilian use of NAVigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC), the regional navigation satellite system developed by Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the space agency is introducing the L1 frequency in all its future satellites.

“The next satellites, starting from NVS-01 onwards, will have an L1 band for civilian navigational use,” said Union Minister of State for Department of Space Jitendra Singh in a written reply in Parliament on Wednesday.

The L1 frequency, which is one of the most commonly used frequency in the Global Positioning System (GPS), will increase the use of the regional navigation system in wearable devices and personal trackers that use low power, single frequency chips. At present, the satellites operate on two frequencies — L5 and S band.

The NVS-01 satellite, according to previous annual reports of the Department of Space, is set to replace one of ISRO’s seven navigational satellites currently in space. Two of these satellites — IRNSS-1B and IRNSS-1C — will complete their 10-year mission life in 2024.

The NavIC-enabled chipsets first made their way to cell phones in 2019 even though the first three satellites of the constellation were launched in 2013 and 2014. Experts say only three satellites are needed to make a navigational constellation partially operational; However, before 2017, the space agency did not take interest in developing the user segment.

In fact, a 2018 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General notes that even though ISRO received a go ahead for Rs 200 crore funding from the Cabinet to develop the user receivers in 2006, work on it only started in March 2017, by when all three atomic clocks aboard the first satellite — IRNSS-1A (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System) — had failed and two other satellites had lost two to three years of their mission life.

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The seven satellites in the NavIC constellation so far use two frequencies for providing positioning data — L5 and S band. The new satellites NVS-01 onwards, meant to replace these satellites, will also have L1 frequency that can be used by devices that run on low power, single-frequency chips such as smart watches and security systems.

“Other than the issues with atomic clocks onboard the satellites, there was not much interest in the space agency for developing the user segment. There was a discord. What this meant was that there were satellites sending signals but no user chipsets to receive the data. A couple of years ago, the commercial use of NavIC did start but years of mission life of these satellites was wasted,” said Ajey Lele, senior fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

“The usage of NavIC system has increased in India. NavIC finds utilization in national projects like public vehicle safety, power grid synchronization, real-time train information system and fishermen safety. Other upcoming initiatives (such as) common alert protocol-based emergency warning, time dissemination, geodetic network and unmanned aerial vehicles are in the process of adopting NavIC system,” the minister said in his reply in Parliament.

Other than that, many mobile phones available in the country already use chipsets capable of receiving NavIC signals. The minister in his reply said the “performance of NavIC system is on par with the other positioning systems”.

In fact, with a fully operational constellation and ground stations outside of India – ISRO plans to set up ground stations in Japan and France to better triangulate the entire area under NavIC coverage – the system is likely to become more accurate than GPS. The satellites placed directly over India also ensures better availability of signals in varied geographical regions as compared to GPS, which is received by India at an angle making it difficult to access in dense forests or valleys.

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