TEAM INDUS TO THE MOON

In a race into orbit to win $30 million, they entered at the zero hour without the financial support of many of their rivals. But, they’ve survived to position themselves for a shot at the moon. Meet Team Indus, India’s only entry in the global Google Lunar XPRIZE.

STORY: JOHN SCOTT LEWINSKI
PHOTOGRAPHY: RAHUL NARAYAN

TEAM INDUS TO THE MOON

In a race into orbit to win $30 million, they entered at the zero hour without the financial support of many of their rivals. But, they’ve survived to position themselves for a shot at the moon. Meet Team Indus, India’s only entry in the global Google Lunar XPRIZE.

STORY: JOHN SCOTT LEWINSKI

“Our first challenge was coming up with the registration money,” says Team Indus Tech Lead Rahul Narayan, “but with the backing of Axiom Research Labs, Indus was the 29th and last team to register for the Google Lunar Prize on New Year’s Eve, 2010 – the last day.” An IT entrepreneur and technology innovator, Narayan was involved in the effort from the beginning and acknowledges that the initially undermanned and underfunded Indus had to hustle to stay in the fight. However, he never wants to hear the “U word.”

“We have been called ‘underdogs,’ but that’s not how we see ourselves. Team Indus views itself as the ‘David versus the Goliaths.’ We don’t see ourselves as disadvantaged or racing from behind. Being a David makes us do things differently. It makes us innovate and change the rules of the game,” Narayan says.

The Moon Shot

Founded in 2007 as an inducement prize contest to encourage private sector exploration of space, the XPRIZE offers simple guidelines for its monumental challenge. The rules state that the first team to a) land a privately funded rover on the lunar surface; b) control it for a minimum 500 meter roll under its own power; and c) successfully receive high definition images and video back from the rover wins the $30 million purse. The second team to pull it off takes home a $5 million consolation prize.

Beyond the obvious financial gain and national pride, a place in history as the first entity to achieve successful, non-governmental space exploration is at stake. A philosophy of “keeping goals small” maintained the team’s early momentum in the competition. Corporate Relations Lead Dilip Chabria insists Indus was up against other teams with deep pockets. So, the team started testing theories on paper before approaching any fabrication.

“We set out to solve a simple theoretical problem on how to land usable payload on the moon’s surface,” Chabria explains. “We managed to make more good decisions than some not-so-good decisions, thus enabling us to go from solving the problem on paper to building a real spacecraft. The gradual extension of targets allowed us to focus on the next couple of upcoming milestones instead of letting the final target scare us or derail the ongoing work.”

Roving toward Reality

That was then. Now, Team Indus is made up of more than 80 diverse professionals, including multimillionaires, entrepreneurs, and captains of industry. Chabria will oversee how the team’s resulting technology is marketed. Mission Architect Sameer Joshi served as a pilot in the Indian Air Force before transitioning to space exploration. And, Narayan supervises a growing mix of scientists and engineers.

“It’s outstanding to think we went from struggling to find the registration money to emerging as one of only three teams to have won the competition’s Milestone Prize for demonstrating risk mitigation for our landing capabilities,” says Narayan. “At this point there are only 16 teams left in the competition. Thirteen teams quit, but we remain.”

“At the outset, we set ourselves some design philosophies for engineering,” Chabria adds. “We agreed to not blindly follow ‘the norm.’ We accepted some of our decisions would not be the right ones, but it was fine as long as we were objective in recognizing the mistakes before course correcting. I believe we have been very fortunate to have found the right kind of support at the right time — in technology, fundraising and in moral support. That keeps us going as a team.”

Indus found itself in need of a special kind of support when it hit communication system snags. As far as the XPRIZE is concerned, if the vehicle can’t phone home when the team puts its rover on the lunar surface the feat will go for naught.

Other entrants tackled such challenges with powerful technological corporate partners. The Part Time Scientists Team out of Germany has Audi (and parent company Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker). Japanese entrants Hakuto partnered with Suzuki to pool resources. Indus lacked that major global entity as it faced the challenge of talking to a machine 238,900 miles away.

Calling Tata to the Rescue

They turned to an Indian neighbor and entered a timely partnership with Tata Communications to work on telemetry and long range communications. According to Vinod Kumar, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer at Tata Communications, the firm is a part of the massive Mumbai-based Indian multinational Tata Group, which offered an extensive reservoir of technology for Team Indus.

“I doubt that there is a person alive who hasn’t had that moment of wonder when reading about or looking into space,” Kumar says. “Space exploration is so much more than an adventure. Human journeys into the skies have had a viable impact on everyday lives in informing and influencing the development of such essentials as satellite TV and cell phone communications.”

“I doubt that there is a person alive who hasn’t had that moment of wonder when reading about or looking into space,”

Tata Communications will send the space signal from the rover to the Team Indus Bangalore Command Center using its proprietary low-latency 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 using similar technology. The expansion of that technology across space is the technological challenge Tata and Team Indus must conquer together.

“Tata Communications’ partnership with Team Indus will enable swift and reliable communications,” adds Kumar. “That will not only support the mission itself but also allow Team Indus to bring back data and insight that will add to our knowledge about the universe and potentially help us create more life enhancing solutions.”

Innovations Lift Off

It’s clear when you hear Narayan and Chabria talk of Team Indus’ survival how much they want to reach the moon — whether or not they win the contest. But, in the meantime, they’re engineering concepts that promise to generate revenue before and after the XPRIZE winner touches the lunar surface.

“Designing, prototyping, building and qualifying a spacecraft and a planetary rover from scratch gives us the ability to go after other similar complex engineering problems,” Chabria agrees. “Those might include development of low cost satellites, autonomous navigation systems for vehicles, imaging solutions for Earth observation, communication systems for wide area wifi, and other solutions.”

It’s clear when you hear Narayan and Chabria talk of Team Indus’ survival how much they want to reach the moon — whether or not they win the contest.

Rivals Come Together

Of course, such innovations growing out of the Lunar XPRIZE is a prime reason for the contest’s creation — and the 16 surviving teams know this. Along with Indus, they’re all still on task in this winner-takes-all rivalry. Still, Narayan believes there’s a sense of respect and camaraderie amongst survivors. Teams enjoy periodic interaction, and deadline pressure may break down international walls and encourage teams to join forces — spreading 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.”

Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, the Senior Director for Google Lunar XPRIZE, hopes Narayan is right — and he believes Indus’ “David” could be one of the teams the Goliaths turn to as the deadline nears.

“One of the key objectives of this prize was making sure that we had a global reach and encouraged people from all over the world to register in the competition,” Gonzales-Mowrer says. “We were thrilled when Team Indus registered and it has been a complete joy to see them interact with the other teams in the competition.”

In terms of Team Indus’ participation, I have appreciated their ability to be resilient.

“In terms of Team Indus’ participation, I have appreciated their ability to be resilient. They won the $1 million prize purse in the Landing Category for our Milestone Prizes in 2014, and since then have been able to secure sponsorships from various technology companies. We are excited to see what they are able to achieve in the coming months,” Gonzales-Mowrer says.

“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 the moon for the length of a few football fields will not greatly improve life in Mumbai, Bangalore, San Jose, Houston, 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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