India’s first satphone will pair with Android phones and that’s just a small part of the Saankhya story

Anand Murali July 26, 2017

Story Highlights

  • Pruthvi, a chip developed by Saankhya Labs can be used to develop systems that work across the wireless spectrum for civilian and defence use cases
  • A real-time monitoring, tracking and reporting system fitted on trains will trigger audio and visual warning at unmanned level crossings to warn passersby of approaching trains
  • Samraat, developed by Saankhya along with Isro, can be connected to a standard Android smartphone via USB and be used as a satellite phone via an app

What is common between a satellite phone, a tracking system for the Indian Navy and Coast Guard, a communication platform for the Indian Army, and a real-time monitoring and reporting system for the Indian Railways? At their heart is Pruthvi, a penny-sized chip developed by an Indian fabless semiconductor company Saankhya Labs.

The cool quotient of the technology developed by the Bengaluru company is that it can be used to develop systems that work across the wireless spectrum for civilian and defence use cases — the first such instance from India.

Most of the projects are being developed in partnership with Indian Space Research Organisation or Isro, whose communication satellites will support these systems.

Real-time monitoring for Indian Railways

Unmanned level crossings are a hotbed for train-related fatalities across India. The Indian Railways has over 9,300 unmanned level crossings and between 2011-2016 there have been 613 deaths at such crossings across India, according to a news report.

The Pruthvi-powered, real-time monitoring, tracking and reporting system fitted on trains will trigger audio and visual warning at unmanned level crossings to warn passersby of approaching trains  

The Pruthvi-powered, real-time monitoring, tracking and reporting system fitted on trains will trigger audio and visual warning at unmanned level crossings to warn passersby of approaching trains.

The safety feature is one of the several in this system, which, at its core, allows two-way communication between running trains and personnel at stations and control centres. To be sure, much of this communication is possible via mobile phones today, but long stretches of the world’s third largest railway network by route kilometres fall in areas not covered by phone networks.

The system allows two-way communication between running trains and personnel at stations and control centres
The system allows two-way communication between running trains and personnel at stations and control centres

The system installed in the train engine has a satellite communication antenna, a GPS antenna, and a touchscreen terminal on the train using which the loco pilot can view the route map, send and receive messages and check other traffic-related information.

“For unmanned level crossings, the system currently provides audio warning, but the system can be modified to provide visual warning and other functionality in future,” says Parag Naik, Saankhya’s CEO who cofounded the company in 2007 along with Hemant Mallapur and Vishwakumara Kayargadde.

The system, yet to be named, has been tested live with a satellite and is in the process of being deployed.

Watching over territorial waters

According to international law, the territorial waters of a country extend 22.2km out from its coastline into the ocean. India has a coastline of over 7,500 km. This means, India’s maritime forces have to monitor some 1.67 lakh sq km — the size of Andhra Pradesh state. The task becomes all the more difficult and tricky when the size of vessels is smaller. And the problem is compounded when small Indian fishing boats stray into waters belonging to countries such as Sri Lanka or Pakistan.

Saankhya has developed a Pruthvi-based system that will help the Indian Navy and coast guards track and monitor sub-20-metre vessels plying in India’s territorial waters.

Saankhya has developed a Pruthvi-based system that will help the Indian Navy and coast guards track and monitor sub-20-metre vessels plying in India’s territorial waters  

The idea is that every Indian fishing vessel will be mandated to install the tracking system. “The system will consist of antennas and a battery-operated terminal fixed on the boat. Other than monitoring, the system will also help assist smaller vessels to prevent entering or drifting into territorial waters of neighbouring countries,” says Naik.

The company says the system, again not named yet, is being made ready for pilot deployment in a month’s time.

Also read: Infiltrators beware: Autonomous rovers, drones may soon be safeguarding India’s border

Indigenous satellite comms

Perhaps the most ambitious platform Saankhya has developed in partnership with Isro is an indigenous satellite phone system called Samrat. It currently works in the S-band but can also be modified to work in the lower L-band. The company claims this is the first indigenously developed satphone system that pairs with Android phones.

The Samrat module, which looks like a power bank with an antenna, can be connected to a standard Android smartphone via USB to be used as a satellite phone via an app. The company also plans to enable Bluetooth connectivity for the module so that the smartphone can be connected wirelessly to the module, which has 24 hours standby time and allows three to four hours talk time when fully charged.

Saankhya_Labs_samrat
An early prototype of the Samrat module, which can be connected to a standard Android smartphone via USB to be used as a satellite phone via an app

“We wanted to leverage the currently available infrastructure on the Android system and use that instead of building a complete device with the chip, screen, user interface and getting different parts from different vendors,” says Naik. “In this case, you just connect the satellite phone module and you are done.”

The fact that Samrat, built around the Pruthvi chip, works on an indigenous system and via an Indian satellite makes it more secure than using a similar service from foreign providers.

The fact that Samrat, built around the Pruthvi chip, works on an indigenous system and via an Indian satellite makes it more secure than using a similar service from foreign providers  

Owning and operating a satphone is not legal in India except in certain conditions when it can be used with prior permission from the Department of Telecommunications of the Indian government, which is responsible for telecom policies and rules.

But this might soon change with the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) announcing its plans to extend satphone services to civilians in two years time. The state-owned telecom operator plans to do this in partnership with British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat, which owns and operates a network of communication satellites.

Multi-frequency comms for the Army

For the Indian Army, Saankhya is developing a set of devices that can work across different frequencies — from 2MHz to S-band. It plans to make the devices more ruggedised and secure compared to their non-military versions.

“These devices will be capable of acting as satphones or a normal terrestrial comm system and will be of various form factors, including handheld or backpack versions, depending on power and range requirements,” adds Naik.

“These devices will be capable of acting as satphones or a normal terrestrial comm system and will be of various form factors, including handheld or backpack versions, depending on power and range requirements” — Parag Naik, CEO, Saankhya  

This development, together with Hyderabad engineering services company Cyient, is also based on the Pruthvi chip.

The chip has been used in the past to power Saankhya’s Meghdoot system that uses ‘white space’ frequencies to beam the internet access to rural areas as part of the Digital India programme. ‘White space’ refers to frequencies allocated for broadcast purposes like terrestrial TV broadcast (eg Doordarshan) but stay unused. They present a cheap and efficient way of enabling internet access in far-flung villages.

Also read: This super-bandage is saving soldiers in the Indian Army from bleeding to death

SDR, the force behind Pruthvi

What is the magic in Pruthvi that allows it to power multiple devices and platforms? SDR or software defined radio. SDR is a radio communication system than can be configured or defined by software. In effect, it replaces conventional hardware circuitry with software modules. This allows for a common hardware platform to be used to communicate via different waveforms by just reloading or reconfiguring the software part of the system based on the requirement at hand.

Saankhya_Labs_inside
The SDR-based tactical radio developed by Saankhya in partnership with Cyient for the Indian Army

Even though SDRs have been around for nearly 30 years, the technology has found limited use until now because it is power hungry — restricting use in low-cost, low-power devices like smartphones.

The use case won’t change overnight with Saankhya’s success with Pruthvi but it holds promise, an expert said. “SDR is more suitable in niche areas like satellite phones, where the volume is not very high, (they come at a) high cost and have specific use cases,” says Mohan Kumar, executive director at Norwest Venture Partners India who previously was the corporate vice-president of Mobile Devices Software at Motorola. “The advantage of the system is that if the standards change, then you can change the software and use the device.” Which is essentially what Saankhya seems to have cracked.

It is a privately held company and doesn’t disclose financial numbers. It says it has invested nearly Rs 100 crore in R&D and says that the yields are finally coming in. Intel Capital and GM Ventures had earlier invested in the company.


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