India’s Team Indus has its eye on more than just prize money as they compete to get their rover concept to the moon, discovers John Scott Lewinski.
The phrase “eyes on the prize” is very much in play for every international competitor racing to the moon for the Google Lunar X Prize. With US$30 million and national pride at stake, the five independent teams that hustle to be the first private entity to land a rover (the space device, not what your grandmother drove) on the moon are focused on more than just deadlines. They’re exhausting every resource to forge as many innovations as the ticking clock will allow, and India is in on the game.
Bangalore-based Team Indus is the only Indian group in the sweepstakes, and they offer a perfect GLXP case study. The rules they face are as simple as their task is complex. The first contestants to land a privately funded rover on the lunar surface, roll 500 meters, and send back HD images and video wins the prize. The second team to pull it off takes home US$5 million worth of consolation.
Team Indus is made up of more than 80 diverse professionals from throughout India. IT entrepreneur and technology innovator Rahul Narayan serves as Tech Lead on the project, supervising a growing mix of scientists and engineers. “We’re configuring and testing the Mission Control software,” Narayan reports from Bangalore. “We underwent a rigorous review by independent Indian Space Research Organization experts.”
The Indian team entered the race on New Year’s Eve of 2010 just under the first deadline. By autumn of that year, a prototype of the Team Indus rover was assembled and remotely drivable. Now, they’re one of only five teams that secured launch resources for the coming year.
Team Indus turned to a partnership with India’s Tata Communications to work on telemetry, long-range communications, and ground operational needs. According to Tata Communications spokesperson Natalie Papaj, the firm is a part of the massive, Mumbai-based Indian multinational Tata Group and was able to leverage an extensive reservoir of technology during its work with Team Indus.
Tata Communications will send the space signal from the rover to the Team Indus Bangalore Command Center using its fiber network. Currently, technicians at Tata HQ in Mumbai can remotely “drive” the rover around the lab in Bangalore via something as simple as a consumer laptop. The expansion of that technology across the roughly 239,000 miles between India and the moon is the technological challenge Tata must conquer. Innovations in Tata’s Formula One Racing communication networks transferred well to lunar tasks.
Of course, advancements made to connect Bangalore to the moon will flow back to improve all of the Earthbound networks Tata Communication builds. The GLXP process was a difficult race for many teams. According to the contest’s own statistics, 29 teams entered and slowly dwindled to the current five. Still, for the teams still on task in this winner-takes-all rivalry, there’s a sense of respect and camaraderie amongst survivors. Teams enjoy periodic interaction, and Narayan believes deadline pressure may break down international walls and encourage teams to join forces. All of that should spread the collective innovations around the world.
“It’s a competition, of course,” Narayan says. “Having said that, we do meet up at GLXP summits and share our learnings and experiences. I’m sure as the competition date gets closer in 2017, we’ll see a few more alliances amongst the teams. I believe that, going forward, there is a need to democratize the access to technology to all who can benefit from it. We need to constantly revolutionize technologies, and the best way to do that is to let people with different perspectives and competencies work on it.
“When the prize is finally awarded to a winner, the fact that a mechanism the size of a small coffee table drove around Mars for the length of a few football fields will not greatly improve life in Mumbai, Bangalore or anywhere else. But, the innovation that emerges from international space exploration teams cooperating with regional tech firms to solve problems will produce results that can change the world.
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