Published at: The Financial Express, March 02, 2019
A group of expatriate scientists and engineers are aiming to develop a homegrown space satellite system that could help Bangladesh tackle its traffic congestion and flash flood problems.
Under the scheme, the country will develop a series of low-cost satellites called Pico satellites, the first of which is expected to be lunched within the next two years.
Apart from its wide range of commercial viabilities, the scheme would help the country develop the required expertise on a full-fledged space programme within the next 10 years, experts involved with the initiative said.
The idea of developing this space satellite network was floated during the first ever convention of NRB engineers, which was held in the capital last week.
Around 150 non-resident Bangladeshi (NRB) engineers from about 21 countries attended the convention, which aimed to turn the ‘Brain Drain into Brain Gain’ by bringing the overseas Bangladeshi experts into the mainstream development of the country.
One of the major themes of the convention was to explore the possibility of developing a full-fledged space programme for the country.
And the idea of developing a network of Pico Satellites was seen as a major stepping stone in this regard.
The proposal has already received funding commitment from the Access to Information project of the government.
“Our idea is to develop a series of homegrown pico satellites or cube satellites that are low in cost but high in return,” said Nazmul Ula, who pitched the idea of implementing this space satellite system for Bangladesh during the convention.
“This would help Bangladesh tackle flash flood, ease traffic congestion and make agricultural planning appropriate,” said Prof Nazmul, who is Professor and Associate Dean of Loyola Marymount University in USA.
The term “picosatellite” or “picosat” is usually applied to artificial satellites with a wet mass between 0.1 and 1 kilogramme, although it is sometimes used to refer to any satellite that is under 1 kg in launch mass.
This is, however, not the first time that Bangladesh is venturing into the world of small space satellites.
Earlier, BRAC University in collaboration with Kyushu Institute of Technology of Japan had developed the country’s first nano satellite called BRAC Onnesha, which was launched from Kennedy Space Center in 2017.
Meanwhile, the country’s first geostationary space satellite called Bangabandhu Satellite 1 was launched from Florida in March last year.
Professor Nazmul noted that unlike the previous initiatives, Pico satellites or cube satellites would be entirely homegrown, would be much cheaper to make and would have a wide variety of functionalities.
“Unlike Bangabandhu Satellite 1, the cube satellites we are talking about will be made entirely in Bangladesh with some technical help from NRB experts,” Professor Nazmul said.
“These satellites will be much smaller in size and will have a maximum life span of two years. Therefore, to make them effective, we would have to build a network of such satellites over a course of time,” he said.
The proposal has already received funding commitment of Tk. 10 million from different government and private entities during the convention.
This includes Tk. 2.5 million from the Service Innovation Fund of the Access to Information (A2I) project of the government as well as Tk. 2.5 million matching fund from each of Abdul Monem Group, BBS Cables and MAX Group.
“It would take around two years for us to launch the first cube sat. However, our target is to launch around 20 such satellites over the next 10 years to bring its services across the country,” said Professor Nazmul.
“We will work with the local government agencies like the telecom ministry, ICT Division, A2I and ERD as well as local universities and research organisations to develop this satellite network,” he added.
The initial cost of building a Pico satellite is only around US$ 100 thousand. However, the cost could be brought down to around US$ 50 thousand for the subsequent satellites.
Apart from its low cost, Pico satellites are commercially highly viable due to a wide range of services it can offer, the US-based expert said.
“Pico satellites can provide us with important geospatial data which can help Bangladesh forecast and prevent flash flood through analysing the flow of river water,” he said.
“Such real time geospatial data can also give us important and insightful information about the city’s traffic congestion, which can help authorities better manage the urban traffic,” he added.
In addition, the Pico satellites can help make better agricultural planning by providing important data about weather and terrain, said Nazmul, who is leading the research on cube satellites at Loyola Marymount University in California.
When asked about their views on the proposal, relevant experts and authorities concerned, however, emphasised further research and testing on this kind of technology.
“Pico satellite is still at the experimental stage in most countries”, said Shajahan Mahmood, Chairman of Bangladesh Communication Satellite Company Limited (BCSCL).
“Therefore, we should analyse the experience of other countries before going for its implementation in Bangladesh,” said Mahmood, whose company is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the Bangabandhu-1.
Experts, however, argued that apart from its low cost, homegrown Pico satellites can be an important step in building local expertise.
“Such initiatives can be an important stepping stone in developing a pool of human resources capable of building satellites at home,” said Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor of Access to Information project of the government.
“This experience and expertise can go a long way in preparing the country for future large-scale space missions,” he added.