Page 1

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 Rs. 20

Changing Lives Through

Scientific Collaborations


The Power of

Prediction By MICHAEL GALLANT

Indian farmers can navigate weather-related risks by getting early warnings from automated weather stations, set up through a partnership between USAID India and Skymet Weather Services.

F Courtesy Skymet Weather Services

armers and agricultural workers in India face daunting challenges—too much rain or not enough, damaging winds and destructive cyclones, extreme heat and sustained dryness. These and other weather-related risks destroy harvests and threaten lives. Fortunately, an innovative collaboration between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) India and Noida-based Skymet Weather Services has come up with solutions to help thousands of farmers navigate weather-related problems. Through the Partnership in Climate Services for Resilient Agriculture in India (PCSRA) initiative, close to

2 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020


Photographs © Getty Images and courtesy Skymet Weather Services

September/October 2020

https://span.state.gov

V O LU M E L X I N U M B E R 5

MANISH SWARUP © AP Images

Courtesy NASA

CONTENTS 22

7 The Power of Prediction

22

*

A New Frontier in Space

7

*

Collaborations for Clean Air

26

*

Beating the Mosquito Menace

10

*

Monitoring Droughts

28

*

Sensing Soil Needs

14

*

Check(o) for Authenticity

32

*

Empowering the Future

16

*

Ensuring Product Integrity

35

*

Stress-Free Plants

19

*

Countering the ‘Infodemic’

39

*

VITAL Matters

16

Left: An automated weather station in Bihar, set up through a partnership between USAID India and Skymet Weather Services, to help farmers access real-time weather information using the SkyMitra mobile phone app (above) and other communication technologies.

Editor in Chief Michael L. Cavey

Art Director/ Production Chief Hemant Bhatnagar

Editor Deepanjali Kakati Associate Editor Suparna Mukherji Hindi Editor Giriraj Agarwal Urdu Editor Syed Sulaiman Akhtar Copy Editors Akshay Kapoor, Shah Md. Tahsin Usmani

Deputy Art Directors / Production Assistants Qasim Raza, Shah Faisal Khan

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

*

undefined undefined/iStock/Getty Images

2

39 Front cover: USAID India, in association with Skymet Weather Services, is helping small and marginal farmers across the country increase their yield through precision farming. Photograph courtesy Skymet Weather Services.

* Articles with a star may be reprinted with permission. Those without a star are copyrighted and may not be reprinted. Contact SPAN at 011-23472135 or span.website@gmail.com

Printed and published by David H. Kennedy on behalf of the Government of the United States of America and printed at Thomson Press India Ltd., 18/35 Delhi Mathura Road, Faridabad, Haryana 121007 and published at the Public Affairs Section, American Embassy, American Center, 24 K.G. Marg, New Delhi 110001. Opinions expressed in this 44-page magazine do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Government.


4 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

Above: The USAID India and Skymet Weather Services collaboration helps thousands of farmers, including in Puna Kala village of Gaya district in Bihar, navigate weather-related problems. Above right: Deepak of Atri village in Bihar is one of the many farmers who use the SkyMitra app’s real-time data about weather and crop conditions. Right: Women farmers, who form a large part of the agricultural sector workforce, are also catered by the USAID India and Skymet collaboration. Far right: A farmer in Kharati village in Bihar uses the weather display board and discusses his plan for the next day with a Skymet representative.

nearly 60 percent of PCSRA’s participants were from small and medium-sized farms—agricultural operations that are considered the “most underserved and vulnerable to climate change.” However, the partnership had to overcome some challenges to gain traction among India’s most vulnerable agricultural workers. “At the time of the commencement of the project, it was difficult to enroll farmers as they were very skeptical,” says Labana. “They were not familiar with Skymet as an entity and, therefore, the field team had to visit several times to give an overview of the project and build trust.” The program also had to make special efforts to engage with women, who made up about nine percent of the program’s overall enrollment. “Women’s enrollment was a challenge due to the existing sociocultural norms,” says Labana. “The project team worked very hard to encourage women’s participation in project meetings, to give voice and visibility to women farmers.” The program continued to thrive even amid COVID-19, says Singh. Given infection risks and lockdowns, Skymet responded by further

Photographs courtesy Skymet Weather Services

700 automated weather stations have been installed around the country, each using a combination of cameras and sensors to constantly gather valuable, real-time data about weather and crop conditions. Via Skymet’s proprietary SkyMitra mobile phone app and other communication technologies, local farmers are able to access the results, receive early warnings of weather-related risks, and make well-informed decisions for both their farms and families. The Android-based SkyMitra app offers features like extreme weather alerts, live weather data of the nearest automated weather station, disease alerts and a forum to share experiences and ask questions to agriculture experts. The app’s content is available in Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Oriya, Telugu and Kannada. Skymet has also developed an online data monitoring tool, named SkyGreen, to monitor the data of farmers registered under the program. This app activates climate services on the mobiles of farmers within 72 hours of enrollment. “This public-private partnership used a suite of Indian and U.S. digital technology and expertise to enhance the resilience and adaptive capacity of farmers in India, by making climate information, risk mitigation tools and advisory services available to them,” says Mustapha El Hamzaoui, director for the Food Security Office of USAID India. PCSRA, which was completed in July 2020, has positively impacted close to over 85,000 Indian farmers in 31 districts across nine states, says Jatin Singh, founder and managing director of Skymet, who led the partnership since its inception. One of his key goals through PCSRA was to “provide information at crop level, so that no one sleeps hungry at night.” Singh recalls a recent story that illustrates PCSRA’s power to improve lives. Before cyclone Amphan hit India in May 2020, the owner of a small family farm, who had enrolled with the partnership, received text messages and an automated voice call from Skymet’s systems, warning of intense winds and weather in the coming days. Armed with this knowledge, he hired extra workers to harvest his crops before the storm arrived, effectively saving his family’s livelihood from destruction. This story is one of many. “The fact that over 85,000 farmers have been a part of the USAIDSkymet project is a great success,” says Simrat Labana, a USAID project management specialist focusing on agriculture. Labana also notes that


This public-private partnership used a suite of Indian and U.S. digital technology and expertise to enhance the resilience and adaptive capacity of farmers in India.

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 5


automating its distribution of vital crop and weather alerts using artificial intelligence. It also made sure that registered farmers receive the information they need via the SkyMitra app, WhatsApp, SMS and other mobile platforms. “Skymet’s weather forecasters and agriculture experts ensured uninterrupted transmission of timesensitive and location-specific climate information,” says Labana. “This is the advantage of digital technologies. It is location-agnostic and enables transmission of critical information at scale.” Moving forward, Singh hopes to continue using artificial intelligence technologies to keep farmers informed with just the click of a button. According to him, the sensors and cameras currently used for monitoring crops will continue to feed information to Skymet’s supercomputers. These supercomputers will then analyze the data and make key information instantly available to enrolled farmers via an automated chatbot. For the partners who made PCSRA into a lifeline for farmers, this was only the beginning. “It was a privilege to be associated with USAID for such an initiative intended to benefit such large groups of people and diversified geographies,” says Skymet Vice President Rekha Mishra, who highlights the partnership’s abilities to improve not just the lives of individuals, but the systems that support them as well. “For Skymet, it is a matter of pride to be a core contributor.” Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.

6 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

USAID India www.usaid.gov/india

PCSRA https://bit.ly/3078ifq

Go Online

Courtesy Skymet Weather Services

Left: Guided by Skymet Weather Services’ croprelated updates, Khesari sprays his field in Puna Kala village of Bihar with optimum amount of weedicide.


Collaborations

Clean Air

A partnership between the Society for Indoor Environment and the U.S. Embassy in India gives hope for lesser pollution and cleaner air.

Courtesy Society for Indoor Environment

undefined undefined/iStock/Getty Images

By MICHAEL GALLANT

Far left: Display system of an AcuRite mini weather station, installed as part of a partnership between the Society for Indoor Environment and the U.S. Embassy in India.


A Below: A poster on air pollution created by students of Lachoo Memorial College of Science & Technology, Jodhpur. Bottom: Students of Lachoo Memorial College of Science & Technology with Dr. Arun Sharma (center, left), Priyanka Kulshreshtha, joint secretary of Society for Indoor Environment (center, front), and Punit Saraswat, head associate professor of the college’s department of zoology and environmental science (center, right).

8 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

ir pollution in India is a severe and persistent problem that affects the health of millions. But an innovative new partnership shows signs of addressing this massive issue through raising awareness of air quality at the local level. Dr. Arun Sharma is the president of the New Delhi-based nongovernmental organization Society for Indoor Environment as well as a medical doctor and professor specializing in public health. Beginning August 2019, his organization partnered with the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, with financial support from New Delhi-based strategic communications initiative Climate Trends, to position low-cost air monitors and weather stations around India. The goal? To gather valuable data about air quality from small and medium-sized communities in north India, raise awareness about vital public health issues, and build capacity for positive change. The partnership began after Dr. Sharma was invited by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) India to speak about air pollution and health as part of a U.S. Embassy program. A visit to Dr. Sharma’s lab by the embassy officials and USAID staff followed, and the idea of working together to monitor air quality in India was born. “Awareness of the effects of air pollution on human health is not very sound in small towns and rural areas of

India, and the U.S. Embassy’s Economic, Environment, Science and Technology Affairs team proposed working together,” says Dr. Sharma. “Monitoring air quality could be linked with a program to raise public awareness, and the embassy offered to lend us low-cost air monitors and weather stations to make it happen.” Dr. Sharma’s plan included installing the air monitoring devices in educational institutions in smaller cities—places where knowledge about air quality issues was not widespread, he says, or students and teachers did not already have opportunities to learn about the topic. The equipment was first installed in Lachoo Memorial College of Science & Technology in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, where Dr. Sharma and his team from the Society for Indoor Environment also conducted a workshop. “Three hundred students and teachers attended, and it was very successful in the sense that it created a lot of awareness,” says Dr. Sharma. “The students, who were mostly aged 16 through 20, were very inquisitive, curious and interested. Faculty and students from the Department of Zoology and Environmental Science took up the project of monitoring the weather data that the sensors were gathering and sending them to us for analysis every month.” Outreach to other institutions followed, with Dr. Sharma’s team installing equipment and working with students at colleges in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, West Bengal, Punjab, Chandigarh and beyond. “So far, we have been able to install these devices in nine locations,” says Dr. Sharma. “We have seven more installations lined up, but because of the COVID-19 [restrictions], we haven’t been able to move forward yet.”


late that knowledge into meaningful action by changing their families’ or their businesses’ activities in positive ways.” When India went under lockdown due to COVID-19 in March 2020, colleges and universities were shuttered, which unfortunately halted the flow of data from partnering institutions to Dr. Sharma and his colleagues at the Society for Indoor Environment. “Our plan was to collect a full year of data, to compare it against different land uses, geographies and weather backgrounds,” he says. “Gracefully, the U.S. Embassy has allowed us a one-year extension, so we can continue to gather data and complete this exciting work.”

U.S. Embassy in India https://in.usembassy.gov/

USAID www.usaid.gov/india

Go Online

Society for Indoor Environment www.societyforindoor environment.com

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City. Below: A mini weather station being installed at the University of North Bengal, Siliguri, as part of a partnership between the Society for Indoor Environment and the U.S. Embassy in India. Below left: Dr. Arun Sharma delivers a talk during a workshop at the Lachoo Memorial College of Science & Technology, Jodhpur. Photographs courtesy Society for Indoor Environment

Before the coronavirus pandemic paused the project, Dr. Sharma was delighted by how the program was evolving, including one related initiative in which students performed door-todoor surveys to interview community members about chronic diseases linked to air pollution. Dr. Sharma and his team then planned to analyze the results of these surveys in the context of the data collected by the local sensors and weather stations, gaining further insights into the relationship between air quality and human health. Beyond collecting information and gaining knowledge, Dr. Sharma wants these efforts to put the battle against air pollution into the hands of India’s citizens. “What I am looking at is micro-level impact,” he says. “In a hugely populous country, it’s not possible for the government to invest all the money needed to make the air clean. It requires participation from the general population.” “Only when people become aware of a problem are they empowered to do something about it,” he continues. “The students we work with are change agents, who will take the messages home and change daily practices that contribute to air pollution.” India’s air pollution comes from a variety of community-level sources. Many rural areas lack the infrastructure to provide reliable electricity, so residents end up burning diesel fuel in generators, creating pollution. Similarly, stoves that use wood and other biomass are very common, contributing further to dangerously polluted air. “The government is trying to promote the use of liquefied petroleum gas in cylinders for domestic cooking since it’s purer and less polluting than burning wood or coal,” says Dr. Sharma. “If students learn which activities are polluting, they can trans-

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 9


Monitoring Droughts

O

By HILLARY HOPPOCK

Photographs courtesy Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute

ver the past 30 years, droughts have increasingly affected agricultural production and food security in various regions across the world. India, for instance, has experienced many weak seasonal monsoons over the past 20 years. With the increase in India’s population, there has been a corresponding rise in the demand for food and water for agriculture. This, in turn, has led to depletion of aquifers, primarily due to expanding agricultural irrigation. “India has been looking for technological interventions to help build drought resilient agricultural systems,” says Ravinder Kaur, principal scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) for a collaborative U.S.-India research project

10 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

through the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF). “We need to monitor droughts more efficiently and implement demand-driven irrigation schedules for our crops.” She feels that the University of NebraskaLincoln (UNL) was the logical choice for an exchange of scientists and researchers with IARI. Home to the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), the university has extensive experience in drought monitoring in different regions of the world. “The Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute (DWFI) at the University of Nebraska uses the hybrid SETMI [spatial evapotranspiration modeling interface] model to apply the remotely sensed inputs for monitoring field- or catchment-scale crop


The Indian Agricultural Research Institute and the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska have developed an agricultural drought monitoring system for India.

water demands to develop effective cropspecific irrigation schedules,� says Kaur. In 2016, IARI and DWFI established a partnership, titled Improving Water Management, Agricultural Production and Food Security in Drought Prone Areas, funded by the U.S.-India 21st Century Knowledge Initiative. Christopher Neale, DWFI director of research and creator of the SETMI model, notes that the expertise of faculty and staff at both institutions contributed to meeting the project’s three main objectives of developing an agricultural drought monitoring and early warning system for India, providing satellitebased evapotranspiration estimates for irrigation system monitoring and developing water-conserving sensor-operated irrigation

Left: Project team visit to the AmeriFlux tower site at Mead, Nebraska. The study site is one of three fields at the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center. Above: Ravinder Kaur (right) with Christopher Neale (third from left) at the Nebraska Unmanned Aircraft Integration Research and Education lab.

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 11


scheduling protocols. “IARI students and our staff worked together on each of those objectives,” says Neale. “The Pan India Composite Drought Monitoring Index was developed through collaborative research of the Indian faculty, their Ph.D. students and the UNL faculty and staff at NDMC. In 2019, it was successfully tested in two of the most drought-prone regions of India—Karnataka and Maharashtra—and is now transferrable to other regions.”

Water demand monitoring According to Kaur, the current practice of flood irrigation, which sacrifices huge amounts of water for only 30 to 40 percent efficiency,

Efficient drought and irrigation water demand monitoring through satellite data, and its demand-based scheduling are the starting points for India to develop an efficient water management system.

12 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

needs to be replaced with targeted microirrigation that supplies the water to the roots of the plant for 80 to 90 percent efficiency. “However, though subsidized in India since 1980, micro-irrigation is currently being used on only 11 percent of agricultural land,” she says. “Efficient drought and irrigation water demand monitoring through satellite data, and its demand-based scheduling are the starting points for India to develop an efficient water management system.” Indian faculty and two Indian Ph.D. students worked with DWFI for two years to accurately estimate the irrigation water needed for India’s winter wheat crop. The SETMI model was used on the Narmada canal project in Rajasthan to remotely sense the crop evapotranspiration across the irrigation project area. “Evapotranspiration,” explains Neale, “is the combined processes of evaporation from the soil surface and the transpiration of water vapor through the plant’s stomata, which are openings where carbon dioxide goes in and water vapor

comes out. This evapotranspiration can be estimated using the thermal infrared band of a satellite sensor detecting the temperature from a water-stressed plant, even before it shows wilting or other physical signs of stress. And that combination of the visible and nearinfrared satellite bands and a thermal infrared band allows for the modeling of crop consumptive use, irrigation timing and how much water to apply.” IARI’s notable contribution to this program, according to Kaur, was fine-tuning the research processes and accomplishing field observations to validate the modified technology protocols for spatial drought and irrigation water demand monitoring in data-

Above: Ravinder Kaur (third from right) with other Indian Agricultural Research Institute and Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute leadership and faculty members. Right: Ravinder Kaur (second from left) and other project team members at the University of NebraskaLincoln’s Nebraska Innovation Campus Greenhouse, an automated plant phenotyping platform.

sparse and drought-prone areas. The research on the use of water-conserving sensors to operate irrigation scheduling protocols was also initiated and had encouraging preliminary results.

Pandemic intervenes “The global COVID-19 pandemic has stymied the conclusion and final steps of this research project since March 2020, impacting the implementation of the project’s collaborative research results in India,” says Kaur. “The whole goal of the program was not to just publish papers, but to transfer and apply the technologies in India.” Workshops which


Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.

Below right: Kickoff workshop for the collaborative U.S.-India research project on monitoring droughts and assessing crop water demand.

USIEF www.usief.org.in

University of Nebraska-Lincoln www.unl.edu

DWFI https://waterforfood. nebraska.edu/

Photographs courtesy Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute

Below: Project team members at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s field phenotyping facility at Mead, Nebraska.

automatically delivering irrigations,” she says. “But we need time to further validate the developed irrigation scheduling protocols on other crops and share the developed protocols for monitoring droughts and assessing crop water demand in larger irrigation operations with Indian policymakers and researchers, for it to translate to large-scale application and adoption.”

Go Online

were going to be held in New Delhi, to disseminate the project’s research results to policymakers, technical staff, and state and regional government officials, had to be canceled. Kaur acknowledges that time is a big constraint right now. “This partnership has given us the building blocks for a satellitebased drought monitoring system, a catchment-scale crop water demand estimating system and crop temperature stress-based algorithms for sensing and

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 13


Check( o ) for Authenticity

C

By GIRIRAJ AGARWAL

identify fake products, with help of a grant from the U.S.India Science and Technology Endowment Fund.

What are some of the unique features of the Checko labels? The copy-proof labels can be scanned by a 4 megapixel camera, even when the communication network becomes unavailable. Our three-dimensional Checko labels are printed using a random pattern and have a thickness of 30 to 50 microns. The threedimensionality ensures that the label cannot be photocopied, while the random pattern guarantees that the label cannot be reproduced. The strength of the solution is

From right: Sudhanshu Bahadur, chief executive officer, and Deepak Gupta and Pranav Asthana, cofounders, Transpacks Technologies.

14 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

such that a particular Checko label cannot be reproduced by even us—the original manufacturers of this label. This random pattern is based on a naturally occurring phenomenon, known as physically unclonable function (PUF). This random 3D pattern is combined with a QR code that makes it machine-readable using an artificial intelligence-based smartphone app. Our app is based on image processing and machine learning algorithms that check each label on three aspects. First, it checks if the label is a true 3D label, or a 2D photocopy. Second, it verifies if this label was manufactured using our proprietary printing processes. Third, it checks if the image of this label exits in our database. The proprietary printing techniques, along with the proprietary machine learning, guarantee that each label is 100 percent copy-proof and trustworthy. Could you explain the process of developing and distributing the labels, as well as that of verification by the app? The Checko 3D label is initially printed on specialized screen printing equipment. Thereafter, the printing process is moved to a specialized QR code printing and digital imaging machine. These mega rolls are then slit into individual rolls, packed and sent to the brand to be applied on individual units. Brands can choose to apply Checko tags using specialized application machines or even manual applicators for smaller quantities. Once the Checko labels are affixed to product units, they are shipped through the brand’s supply chain to retail outlets for purchase by the end customers. Customers can download the Checko app, or the brand app, scan the product and, in a blazing fast speed of under four seconds, determine if the product is genuine or fake. Photographs courtesy Transpacks Technologies

IIT Kanpur-based Transpacks Technologies has developed lowcost anticounterfeiting 3D labels to

ounterfeit goods are one of the greatest risks to social and economic development as well as the health and lives of people. The trade in fake goods is now prolific, mainly because of the exponential rise in counterfeiting activities on the Internet in recent years. So, how do we know if a product is genuine, especially when barcodes and holograms can be replicated and affixed to duplicate products? Enter Checko, a low-cost anti-counterfeiting 3D label. These labels are tamper-proof, cannot be cloned and can be used to verify the authenticity of a product using even a low-end smartphone, without requiring any form of communication. Checko has been developed by Transpacks Technologies, based at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, in collaboration with California-based Ampora LLC. The project received a grant from the U.S.-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund (USISTEF), which supports U.S.-India entrepreneurial collaborations to address the theme of “commercializing technologies for societal impact.” Excerpts from an interview with Sudhanshu Bahadur, chief executive officer of Transpacks Technologies.


What difficulties did you face in developing and marketing the product? How has been the market response so far? Transitioning a new technology from the lab to the production environment is very challenging, and Checko was no exception. Two transformative generations of print process technologies had to be developed before this product could be manufactured in large volumes. Similarly, developing

Have you tried to use the product to check the authenticity of N-95 masks or personal protective equipment (PPE) kits in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic? We will be supplying our Checko labels to E-Spin Nanotech Pvt. Ltd, a Kanpur-based start-up manufacturing N-95 masks. We have also reached out to a large potential COVID19 vaccine producer in India to enable tracking of COVID-19 vaccines throughout the supply chain. Would you like to share with us any other initiative that Transpacks Technologies is working on? There are two pathbreaking developments we hope to bring to the market in 2021. First, we want to include printing directly on laminate and other surfaces, thus reducing the need for labels and their application on product packaging. Second, we have developed a Checko blockchain solution, which we expect to market and sell globally, especially in food security applications in the U.S.

The strength of the solution is such that a particular Checko label cannot be reproduced by even us— the original manufacturers of this label.

Checko http://checko.ai

Transpacks Technologies http://transpacks.ncflexe.in/

USISTEF www.iusstf.org/usistef/ us-india-science-technology

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 15

Go Online

How did the grant from the U.S.-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund support your endeavors? The USISTEF grant has been crucial in enabling the Indian partner to hire critical print and technology experts to accelerate product development. The equipment grant was a key enabler for adapting the current print equipment for the production of the specialized labels. For the U.S. partner, Ampora LLC, it has enabled the company to develop and demonstrate a key product paradigm of blockchain built on top of the secure Checko technology for supply chain tracking. This would enable traceability of goods such as food products, medicines, liquor and wine, from the production source through the supply chain to the retailer outlet.

specialized image processing algorithms, especially to run on a small device like a smartphone, has been a challenging process. It took our team over two years to reach complete accuracy. However, we are now ready to hit the market and have been enthusiastically welcomed by big and small companies, including some marquee multinational companies in the liquor and agricultural products arena.

Illustration by HEMANT BHATNAGAR, Photographs courtesy Transpacks Technologies and Š Getty Images

Above: The Checko app, the scan screen, identification of genuine products and indication of a fake label.


Ensuring Product Integrity By CARRIE LOEWENTHAL MASSEY

Photographs © Getty Images and courtesy Oak Analytics

Backed by the U.S.India Science and Technology Endowment Fund, the innovative Test4Safety system helps detect adulteration in cooking oil through smart, portable devices.

16 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020


D

o you know what’s in your cooking oil? You may think you do from reading the label, but it can be hard to know for sure. For instance, in August 2019, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) seized nearly 1,500 liters of unlabeled cooking oil in just one raid. The manufacturers were mixing less expensive fats into their oil and then marking up the final product’s sale price by as much as 400 percent, reported The Times of India. Additionally, in January 2020, the American Botanical Council reported the adulteration of extra virgin olive oil as “prolific” globally. And it’s not just the oils that are suspect. The FSSAI reported in its 2015-16 annual report that one in five analyzed food samples in India showed adulteration or misbranding. In a joint global operation, Europol and INTERPOL seized fake food and drinks worth €230 million between December 2016 and March 2017. When food manufacturers use lower quality ingredients to cut production costs, they can negate any health benefits their products can impart, change the taste of the food or even harm consumers’ health by exposing them to allergens or toxins. Despite this, identifying food fraud and enforcing compliance with best health practices has historically faced obstacles like high costs and delays in testing. Enter Test4Safety, an international collaboration between Los Angeles-based Oak Analytics and Mumbai-based d technology. Test4Safety aims to enhance public health through instant verification of the authenticity of what we eat and drink. Although it focuses on oils right

Above: The Test4Safety pocket spectrometer, which captures the spectral signature of items like cooking oil (left) to verify their authenticity.

now, the three basic tenets driving the project overall are that it provides test results within minutes, the testing is done in containers and that the testing entails very low cost. The U.S.India Science and Technology Endowment Fund (USISTEF) provided 10 percent of Test4Safety’s initial funding, and “gave us visibility and access to key decision makers in the government and industry, allowing us to deploy our product,” says Deepak Mehrotra, Oak Analytics’ chief executive officer. USISTEF supports research and development to generate public good, through the commercialization of technology developed as part of sustained partnerships between U.S. and Indian researchers and entrepreneurs. Test4Safety’s approach to minimizing product adulteration differs from other existing methods that focus on fortifying packaging. Instead, it looks at the quality of the molecular contents of the product inside the packaging. “Our system consists of a pocket spectrometer that captures the spectral signature of the product and an artificial intelligence (AI) machine-learning-based decision engine, which compares this signature to a database of known good and bad products,” says Mehrotra. The collaboration between the U.S. and Indian companies was crucial to making the system work. Oak Analytics designed the detection technology—the hardware and software—for the spectrometer, but it needed a database of comparable products, to be able to use the data the devices capture. That’s where d technology came in. “We are a private research and development organization,” says Deepa Bhajekar, managing director of d technology. “When Oak Analytics was looking for an Indian partner, it identified us. When we met, our ideologies clicked well and we were very aligned on the understanding and technical requirement.” To build and authenticate the database used for comparison of spectrometer readings, d technology’s role has been to “perform chemical verification tests on samples of

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 17


Courtesy d technology

Below: Cooking oil samples at d technology.

Go Online

Manufacturers are using our product for supply line security and brand protection. Retailers have started using it for product authentication.

USISTEF https://iusstf.org/ usistef/us-india-sciencetechnology

Oak Analytics https://in.linkedin.com/ company/oakanalytics

d technology https://dtechnology.ooo/

Test4Safety https://www.facebook. com/test4safety/

18 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

various types and blends of oils,” says Mehrotra. “Correlation of spectral signature with the fatty acid profile of an oil is critical for the accuracy of our decision engines.” The database now includes spectral signatures and “envelopes of acceptability” for Kachi Ghani mustard oil, extra virgin coconut oil, refined coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil and ghee—all of which the FSSAI has identified as highest priority oils and fats. Test4Safety has plans to expand its library to include sesame oil, peanut oil as well as blended oils. To date, Test4Safety has deployed close to 50 spectrometers in 11 states across India, where they have been used by FSSAI as well as several oil manufacturers and retailers. “Manufacturers are using our product for supply line security and brand protection,” says Mehrotra. “Retailers have started using it for product authentication.” Customers simply need a smartphone to use the technology and receive instant results, even without an Internet connection. The machine learning and AI components of the spectrometer operate in the cloud, updating the handset with the latest data whenever an Internet connection is available. The entire test-to-result cycle can take from less than 30 seconds to two minutes. Test4Safety is currently preparing another 50 spectrometers for deployment, though development has slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Mehrotra. He expects Test4Safety’s activity to pick up again by the end of 2020. And when it does, the company

has much to look forward to. To determine its course, the company will assess the market feedback it receives. “Based on the market feedback for oils using this technology, we may move ahead for other liquid products such as milk and alcoholic beverages,” says Bhajekar. “The challenges there will be high and I am quite excited as a scientist to survey those findings. This new technology could speed up the test results and help build data for an online tool.” Mehrotra sees opportunity in global markets as well. “Although we started in India, we have received interest from neighboring developing countries that face similar supply chain security challenges,” he says. “We are also working with trade associations in the U.S. to provide a system to confirm the authenticity of extra virgin olive oil for restaurant owners and chefs.” The collaboration between Oak Analytics and d technology is also paving the way for productive technological advances. “Innovative technologies are the future, especially those with accurate, rapid, easy-touse, quick preliminary data results, and will help industry evaluate safety on an online platform rather than wait for external laboratory test results,” says Bhajekar. “The lab results could serve as a back-up on the early decisions made using rapid technology.” Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York Citybased freelance writer.


Countering the ‘Infodemic’ By CANDICE YACONO

Photograph © Getty Images, screenshots courtesy satyanweshi.net and theinfopost.com

Satyanweshi, a chatbot developed by a team of Indian academics, in association with California-based InfoPost, helps counter misinformation.

I

n mid-March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread in India, a group of academics became concerned with one related aspect. This was, as Hamim Zafar, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, describes, a “major flow of misinformation, which was doing more damage than the disease.” To tackle this “infodemic,” Zafar, along with Swaprava Nath of IIT Kanpur and Tanmoy Chakraborty of Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology Delhi, worked with a few students to develop a chatbot, called Satyanweshi.

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 19


nito100/iStock/Getty Images

Photographs courtesy Swaprava Nath

Efforts like Satyanweshi can be integrated into social networks in future, so that the flow of information comes fact-checked to the users.

Top right: Satyanweshi, which counters misinformation, was created by a team including Swaprava Nath, assistant professor at IIT Kanpur and Fulbright-Nehru Postdoctoral Fellow, four students—Prarthana Das (above, from left), Yash Varun, Nithya Muttineni and Ankur Gupta— and others.

20 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020


Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.

Satyanweshi www.satyanweshi.net

InfoPost https://theinfopost.com/

Fulbright-Nehru Postdoctoral Research Fellowships https://bit.ly/368sj9e

B4LLS/iStock/Getty Images

for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and National Health websites. For Facebook Messenger, users can open the Satyanweshi Facebook page (www.facebook.com/satyanweshi2020/), and enter the rumor or summary of a news story they had seen, in the Messenger chat window. “From the point of view of users, they just need to enter a few keywords, in any language, or a sentence they got as a forwarded message and are suspicious about,” says Nath. The chatbot takes this query, finds its intent and acts on it, providing links to articles with facts if the forwarded message conveys inaccurate information. In developing the project, the three faculty members worked with four of their students: Ankur Gupta, Nithya Muttineni, Yash Varun and Prarthana Das. In the future, they hope to further scale up the project. “We are open to discussions with the government, industry, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and other relevant sectors. We are also looking for opportunities for commercializing it,” says Chakraborty. The team sees the app being used to counter misinformation related to other topics as well. “Fake news, in my opinion, is another pandemic which has no vaccine,” says Nath, who was a Fulbright-Nehru Postdoctoral Fellow in 2015-16. His Fulbright-Nehru project at Carnegie Mellon University focused on the challenges in Internet economics. “Efforts like Satyanweshi can be integrated into social networks in future, so that the flow of information comes fact-checked to the users,” he says. “It requires the social media organizations to take initiatives, as it is also claiming lives, property and more. Moreover, the user-friendliness can be extended by incorporating the technology into smart systems used in homes or cars.”

Go Online

Satyanweshi, which means “the seeker of truth” in Sanskrit, is a “truth-checking chatbot, which carefully collects information from various reliable sources and informs whether a piece of news is true or not,” says Zafar. The principal investigators developed the chatbot because they noticed many types of misinformation circulating on the Internet, which ranged from so-called “cures” for coronavirus to blatant attempts at instigating discord. “For instance, some people or communities were accused of deliberately spreading the disease in a country, while some country was accused of creating the disease as a bio-weapon, etc.,” says Zafar. “Similarly, garlic, lemon water and several other plants or drugs had been proposed as solutions to the disease. Some of these issues, unfortunately, are still visible in social media today.” The team has partnered with InfoPost for the chatbot. The California-based start-up works in the domain of “personal artificial intelligence,” which allows users to have their news sources checked automatically for credibility whenever they open any article. Zafar says the developers participated in Samadhan, a hackathon organized by the Ministry of Education of the Government of India, in which they secured the second prize for their concept. “This attracted a lot of attention from various individuals and organizations that were working in this space. InfoPost was one of them,” he says. The chatbot is also integrated into apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Telegram. On WhatsApp, users can submit a message or question, in several Indian and international languages, in the chat window. Satyanweshi will check multiple fact-checking websites and show results. The service also provides ratings of the articles it offers, including whether their claims are true or false. Additionally, Satyanweshi, whose knowledge base is continuously updated, provides general information regarding coronavirus from sources like the U.S. Centers

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 21


NISAR, a joint Earth-observing mission between NASA and ISRO, aims to measure changes in our planet’s surface and study natural hazards and global environmental change.

A New Frontier

Space

I

magine a world in which scientists are able to see minute changes in glaciers, sea levels, crops, aquifers, and even volcanoes before they can cause mass upheaval. This might soon become a reality, thanks to a groundbreaking partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The space agencies have worked together to design the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR), a first-ofits-kind, dual-frequency radar system that will

22 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

in

By CANDICE YACONO

be housed on a satellite, optimized for studying hazards and global environmental change. Synthetic aperture radar refers to a technique of producing fine-resolution images from a resolution-limited radar system. NISAR will measure Earth’s changing ecosystems, dynamic surfaces and ice masses, providing information about biomass, natural hazards, sea level rise and groundwater, and will support a host of other applications. It is scheduled to launch in 2022 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota.


Photographs courtesy NASA

Left: An artist’s concept of NISAR. Below: This scene depicts all three types of observations NISAR is targeting—glaciers (ice), volcanoes (solid earth or deformation) and forests (ecosystems). Below center: Work in progress at an ISRO lab.

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 23


Courtesy NASA

Go Online

Above: The ISRO team visits JPL for a formal review meeting.

NISAR

https://nisar.jpl.nasa.gov

NASA

www.nasa.gov

ISRO

www.isro.gov.in

“NASA and ISRO have a rich history of cooperation, going back to the earliest days of the space age in the early 1960s, when NASA cooperated with ISRO’s predecessor organization [Indian National Committee for Space Research] to launch sounding rockets in India for scientific study,” says Karen M. St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division. “Since that time, NASA and ISRO have cooperated in many different areas, including a mission to the Moon.” NISAR represents the next step forward in the cooperation between the two space agencies. “Whereas most international science activities that NASA engages in involve a lead partner and a supporting partner, NISAR is an exception,” says St. Germain. “NASA and ISRO are working closely together in an equal partnership, with each agency providing substantial contributions to the mission. The only way to succeed at a project of this scale and complexity—that is as interconnected as this mission is—is for each agency to fully commit to the project and to each other.” While NASA is providing the mission’s Lband synthetic aperture radar, a high-rate communication subsystem for science data, Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, a solid-state recorder and payload data subsystem, ISRO is providing the spacecraft bus, the S-band radar, the launch vehicle and associated launch services. V. Raju Sagi, ISRO’s NISAR project director, notes that the radar system can

capture data from all over the planet in all weather conditions, day or night. This will allow scientists to better understand the effects of climate change and other ecosystem disturbances as well as natural hazards. Sagi concurs with St. Germain that the partnership has been ideal. “Despite both teams being located halfway across the globe, the teams have been working well together, adjusting to each other’s time zones and interacting amicably over the available communication media, email, phone and the Internet on an almost day-to-day basis,” says Sagi. “There is this comfortable feeling among the teams that the project is working 24 hours daily, literally. When one team goes to sleep, the other team is up and working at the other end of the globe! Apart from this, the face-toface meetings happening occasionally between the teams at ISRO and JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] always had a component of bonhomie and the teams always acknowledge this to each other.” “I personally am incredibly fulfilled by this relationship,” says Paul A. Rosen, project scientist for the NISAR Mission, based at NASA’s JPL in California. “It is a very ambitious mission. It’s probably the biggest partnership in space that the U.S. and India have ever done.” The collaboration has been in the works for nearly a decade. JPL had explored partnerships with various countries, but “nothing quite worked,” says Rosen. “Then, because of the Indian relationship, one of the managers at JPL said, ‘Why don’t you go and see if they’re interested?’ So, in December 2011, I flew all by myself for the first time to India and gave a presentation about our mission. And they said, ‘Yes, this is exactly what we’ve been wanting to do.’ ” It took two to three years to work out the details. “What finally sealed the deal was a meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” he adds.

It’s going to be a very exciting, first-of-a-kind mission that will really benefit society. 24 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020


unfortunately. We were just to the point of bringing the ISRO major hardware together with our major hardware,” he says. “But, we’ve been waiting for a very long time for this mission, so another year will not make it any less valuable.” Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California. resolution synthetic aperture radar images over 90 percent of the Earth’s land surfaces. Radar images from satellites, such as NISAR, are known for their ability to penetrate through clouds and their day/night imaging capability. Below right: NISAR’s imaging program will help identify the slow-collapse sinkholes that can cause damage to

structures through slow but inexorable settling. This will help protect lives and property. Bottom right: Maintaining dams and levees, which protect communities from floods, requires constant vigilance. Radar remote sensing with NISAR can provide early warning of movement and seepage in time to prevent disaster.

Photographs courtesy Pixabay

JAE C. HONG © AP Images

Below left: Accurate information about soil moisture at the scale of a single agricultural field allows for efficient irrigation, water use and fertilization. NISAR aims to provide, for the first time, the information at these field scales in a uniform and reliable way. Bottom left: NISAR will address fire management needs by collecting high

DOUG WERTMAN/Courtesy Wikipedia

Rosen says understanding the planet’s systems as a whole is critical. “We live on Earth, so we think we know everything about Earth. But we really don’t,” he continues. “NISAR will provide an unprecedented look through radar eyes to create dynamic movies of the Earth in motion. It’s going to be a very exciting, first-of-a-kind mission that will really benefit society.” Frequent data collection will benefit scientists as well as emergency responders, and interested parties will be able to access NISAR’s data for their own projects. “NISAR itself will produce more data than NASA has ever acquired in its entire history, from all of its other missions,” says Rosen. Although the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the progress, Rosen is still optimistic about the future. “This COVID-19 situation was really a monkey wrench in the works,

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 25


Beating the Mosquito Menace By PAROMITA PAIN

A Poravute/iStock/Getty Images

U.S.-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund-supported Vectrax promises to be a cost-effective and sustainable solution to fight the hazard of disease-bearing mosquitoes.

dvances in science are often about challenging dominant paradigms. Agenor Mafra-Neto knows this well. He is the chief executive officer of ISCA, a California-based agricultural biotech company that brings new, effective and inexpensive solutions to global agriculture. His research has led to the creation of Vectrax, an ecofriendly and sustainable solution to fight the hazard of disease-bearing mosquitoes in both urban and rural settings. “In the early 2000s, my brother and sister, who lived in large cities in Brazil, caught dengue,” says Mafra-Neto. “How could they catch dengue in the middle of a city? That got me thinking about how difficult it is to control the breeding of mosquitoes in urban areas.” Mosquitoes are vectors that may carry and transmit several harmful diseases to humans and animals through their bites. Mafra-Neto, who holds doctoral and postdoctoral degrees in entomology/chemical ecology, started looking into the field of mosquito control and realized that there was “very little innovative thinking” when it came to chemical ecology. “At that time, there was a dogma stating that female

26 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

mosquitoes feed only on blood and males feed only on sweet excretions from plants,” he says. Intrigued, he took a fresh look at what attracted mosquitoes in the first place.

Attract and kill “We saw that adult mosquitoes, both male and female, use plant nectar as fuel for their various activities,” says Mafra-Neto. “We started working on scents and different compounds that mimic odors of plants providing these nectar meals to mosquitoes.” This research led Mafra-Neto’s team to create Vectrax, a patented odor-based solution that mimics the scents of plants mosquitoes feed upon, attracts and effectively eliminates the pests. Recently, the project received funding from the U.S.-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund (USISTEF). The fund supports research and development to generate public good, through the commercialization of technology developed as part of sustained partnerships between U.S. and Indian researchers and entrepreneurs.


www.iscatech.com/ products/vectrax/

USISTEF Photographs courtesy Kurt Miller Photography

https://iusstf.org/ usistef/us-iindiascience-ttechnology

In association with the Telangana-based ATGC Biotech, Mafra-Neto was able to test the efficacy of Vectrax in Hyderabad. MafraNeto was introduced to Markandeya Gorantla, chairman and managing director of ATGC Biotech, through his colleagues from Cornell University. “The pheromones [chemicals that affect insect behavior] are expensive to manufacture,” says Gorantla. “ATGC Biotech specializes in this area, and we have the capacity to cost-effectively manufacture such chemical compositions. So, the collaboration was very useful.”

Eco-conscious and sustainable While developing the product, the team was very careful to ensure that using chemicals to modify the behavior of mosquitoes did not affect other beneficial insects like bees. “We wanted a product that could be sprayed as an ‘attract-and-kill’ application, rather than only as an attractant for traps and other devices,” says Mafra-Neto. Conventional pest control techniques usually use harsh chemicals that need to be sprayed on every inch of an area to ensure there are enough toxic surfaces for the mosquitoes to land on and die. This spraying is often uneven, leading to areas with unequal doses of toxic chemicals, which allows mosquito populations to build up resistance to pesticides. However, Vectrax works differently. “We create numerous point sources or hotspots in the area where Vectrax is applied, and this attracts mosquitoes to the point source where

Go Online

Vectrax

Above left: Agenor Mafra-Neto, chief executive officer of ISCA, a California-based agricultural biotech company. Above: Application of Vectrax, an ecofriendly and sustainable solution to fight the hazard of diseasebearing mosquitoes in both urban and rural settings.

they encounter the right dose of pesticide that, then, kills them,” explains Gorantla. “This means using significantly less insecticide per treated area. Thus, the impact on the environment is very low.” He adds that the effect lasts over several months.

Tried and tested Vectrax has already been field-tested for several years in Africa and South America. “Vectrax can be a game changer for developing nations fighting diseases such as malaria and dengue,” says Mafra-Neto. It can be safely used in both urban and agricultural areas. As Gorantla emphasizes, urban pest management is an important concern in India. Vectrax was used in the Golconda Fort area in Hyderabad, which was successful in reducing about 70 percent of the mosquito numbers. With the aid of the USISTEF grant, ISCA will now be able to extensively test the product in Indian conditions. This, in turn, will help it meet regulatory specifications and register the product in India. ISCA’s plans involve working toward bringing more products like Vectrax to the market, scaling up manufacturing and improving distribution. Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 27


Sensing Millennium Alliance awardee Proximal

SoilSens

has developed a low-cost smart soil monitoring system that can help farmers irrigate their land more accurately and sustainably.

28 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020


Soil Needs

F

By JASON CHIANG

or farmers, there is hardly anything more important than the quality and sustainability of the land they cultivate. Proper irrigation is crucial to maintaining soil moisture and health. This aspect, however, is being adversely affected by climate change. According to recent studies, India’s agricultural sector uses about 80 percent of the available water in the country, but almost 40 percent of this water gets wasted due to inefficient irrigation practices. Proximal SoilSens has found a solution. The Maharashtra-based start-up, co-founded by Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay students and professors, has developed a lowcost smart soil monitoring system that can help farmers irrigate their fields more accurately and sustainably. The company’s ultimate goal is to make the agriculture sector more profitable and sustainable by improving crop production and saving water. Sensors for agricultural uses are particularly hard to develop because they need to be highly accurate and specific for the job, while also being rugged enough to function in extreme

weather conditions. These features are essential for farmers, who often do not have access to accurate weather forecasts and farm-specific field data, which are necessary to manage critical agricultural activities like sowing, irrigation, pesticide application and harvesting. Rajul Patkar, co-founder of Proximal SoilSens, began envisioning low-cost sensor devices for point-of-care applications in agriculture while she was a Ph.D. student in 2011 at IIT Bombay. “After some research, I figured out that two significant hindrances were the cost of the product and the mindset of the people,” says Patkar. “After realizing this, my first and foremost challenge was to bring down the cost of the technology and, second, design the product geared toward Indian farmers.” Patkar teamed up with three other Ph.D. students and a professor to form Proximal SoilSens in 2017. The start-up was incubated at IIT Bombay, with support from the Department of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology of the Government of India. The Photographs courtesy Proximal SoilSens

Left: A gardener uses a SoilSens portable moisture meter. Right: Senior Scientist R. N. Sahoo (right) and G. K. Mahapatro, head of Indian Council of Agricultural Research - Indian Agricultural Research Institute Regional Station in Pune, with a SoilSens system.

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 29


start-up has also won a grant from Millennium Alliance, a consortium of partners including the Government of India, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and others. Millennium Alliance provides funding, capacity building and business development support to Indian social enterprises. Since its launch, SoilSens has developed a range of products to help farmers access affordable technologies for advanced precision farming. SoilSens’ tools can provide sensorbased solutions for controlled irrigation and allow farmers to receive irrigation alerts automatically on their phones. Its other solutions enable farmers to control irrigation motors and pumps automatically with just a click on their mobile device. Excerpts from an interview with Patkar.

Photographs courtesy Proximal SoilSens

Indian farmers need the technology and platforms at very affordable costs and with a lot of support and handholding.

30 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

In your opinion, how important are collaborative efforts in your field of work? The forerunner to success as a company is collaboration and perseverance. We, at Proximal SoilSens, believe in the idea of strong collaborations and have partnered with a few companies in the agro domain, which specialize in complementary skill sets. Our beliefs stem from the fact that good soil, optimum water and timely weather advisories are three of the most important things a farmer needs to enhance productivity, along with quality seeds and fertilizer. Excellent storage facilities and market linkages are final important steps in converting a farmer’s produce into income. They need assistance at various levels, and this is why SoilSens thinks that Indian farmers need the technology and platforms at very affordable costs and with a


exciting in the pipeline? Our vision has always been directed toward making precision agricultural technologies affordable for point-of-care applications. Keeping that in mind, we have designed and patented a moisture meter, which is both smart and extremely affordable, at a cost price that is below $100, thus hoping for widespread adoption by marginal farmers. Currently, we are in the process of promoting this technology, by working with FPOs [farmer producer organizations]. As the name of our company suggests, we are developing a portable platform for soil nutrient analysis that can be used in “proximity to the farm.” We will be ready for field trials in the next six months.

Proximal SoilSens https://soilsens.com

Millennium Alliance www.millenniumalliance.in

Go Online

lot of support and handholding. Do you have any updates on recent trials and results of your technology? Proximal SoilSens has worked with the corporate sector, farmers, agri-produce organizations and research scientists to show the benefits of its technology in agriculture. We have done pilot studies across various types of soils and crops, and have seen that the efficiency of water usage improved by 27 percent. It was also noted that the yield of certain crops has gone up, like 7.5 percent in green gram and 20 percent in potato. This improved productivity, coupled with alerts and notifications about diseases and weather, can take the reliability and usability of our systems further. What are Proximal SoilSens’ goals for the future and do you have anything

Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.

Left: SoilSens weather station at Sula Vineyards in Nashik, Maharashtra. Right: Proximal SoilSens team members with farmers in Shirdi, Maharashtra. Below right: Rajul Patkar (center) describes SoilSens products to Nitin Gadkari, minister of road transport and highways; and micro, small and medium enterprises, Government of India, at the Global Business Forum in Goa.

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 31


Empowering the

Future By PAROMITA PAIN

USAID India’s

Greening the Grid

SJPailkar/iStock/Getty Images

program aims to support integration of largescale, variable renewable energy into India’s existing power grid.

32 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020


Meeting energy targets “India has set a target for adding 175 gigawatts of renewable energy to its energy portfolio by 2022,” says Monali Zeya Hazra, regional program manager for USAID India. “GTG is about testing solutions and technologies for integrating renewable energy into the main power grid that feeds the country. Due to the variable nature of renewable

energy resources, important challenges lie ahead, in ensuring grid stability and frequency to maintain uniform power supply.” The GTG-RISE program seeks to address important grid flexibility-related issues, through detailed analysis of how grids can handle different technical options, and demonstrate some of the technologies specific to Indian conditions through pilot projects and sharing knowledge of best practices.

Studies and pilots The first detailed modeling was done in 2017 with the Power System Operation Corporation Limited, a Government of India enterprise under the Ministry of Power, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a U.S.-based Department of Energy lab. “That report focused on different issues like how India doesn’t have adequate cheaper gas power and, thus, could look at making the coal plants more flexible in terms of generating more power and reducing power production when required,” says Hazra. “Implementing such changes requires advanced technical adjustments.” The report emphasized that integration of renewable energy is achievable based on projected power system plans and regulations, and that this level of renewable energy offers benefits of fuel savings and reduced emissions, while still fully meeting projected demand for electricity. “This was an extremely consultative study,” says Hazra, “and the

Below: Participants of a knowledge dissemination workshop on the Greening the Grid project. Courtesy B.A. Gandhi

I

n 2018, BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy report pegged India’s energy consumption at 809.2 million tons of oil equivalent. The country’s energy consumption is behind only the United States and China. India generates about 9 percent of its electricity from renewable resources and plans to deploy unprecedented levels of renewable energy on its power grid, which can greatly reduce the economy’s carbon intensity and strengthen energy security. Greening the Grid-Renewable Integration and Sustainable Energy (GTG-RISE) can play a crucial role in helping India meet its renewable energy targets by “integrating large-scale, variable renewable energy into the existing power grid.” GTG-RISE is a fiveyear program of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) India, implemented in partnership with the Government of India’s Ministry of Power, under the Asia EDGE (Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy) initiative of the U.S. government.

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 33


Go Online

USAID India

www.usaid.gov/india

GTG-RISE

www.gtg-india.com

Asia EDGE

www.state.gov/asia-edge

SARI/EI

Photographs courtesy B.A. Gandhi

https://sari-energy.org

Top: B. A. Gandhi, executive engineer (efficiency) at Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited (GSECL). Above and above left: With support from USAID India, the Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited successfully operated its 500 MW Ukai unit at only 40 percent of its capacity during a recently conducted low-load test run. These low-load test runs allow GSECL to identify its ability and adaptability to reduce its generation when asked by the system operator, for integrating more renewable energy, and remain synchronized with the power grid.

India has set a target for adding 175 gigawatts of renewable energy to its energy portfolio by 2022. 34 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

intent was to enhance the capacity of stakeholders.” The next stage was to conduct pilot studies to validate findings as well as look for solutions to different issues like the type of battery that would work best as storage units. Post that, knowledge-sharing workshops for replicating and scaling technologies were organized and six pilot projects are being implemented. One of these pilot projects was with the Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited (GSECL). “Over the last four years, USAID India’s GTG-RISE initiative has immensely helped GSECL in ascertaining the technocommercial feasibility of the conventional coal-based units in order to address faster ramp up and ramp down of operations and

lower technical minimums in light of the existing procedures, equipment, processes and operational practices,” says B. A. Gandhi, executive engineer (efficiency), GSECL. The pilot project enabled GSECL to identify techno-economic viability of a range of feasible, power plant-specific options for achieving the desired levels of flexibility as well as identify changes that pertain to aspects related to fuel cycles, water and steam cycles, control systems and capacity building of operational and maintenance teams, among other areas, within the power plant.

Regional energy security Another important aspect that the collaboration addresses pertains to regional energy security in South Asia. A bigger grid integrated with neighboring countries provides options for more flexible resources. In turn, these countries gain access to the more costeffective renewable energy produced by India. In South Asia, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal have established transmission links through which electricity is being traded. “USAID has the SARI/EI [South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy Integration] program that supports regional integration,” says Hazra. “The whole idea is to strengthen the transmission system that would enable the easy movement of power. If the broader grid can be seamlessly integrated with neighboring countries like Nepal and Bhutan, then through sharing resources, India’s hydro power issues, for example, can be tackled using resources that neighboring countries have.” Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.


Fulbright-Nehru Scholar

Kirankumar Mysore conducts research on reducing stress in plants, to avoid losses in food production.

Courtesy Noble Research Institute

Stress-ffree

Plants By NATASA MILAS

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 35


S

tress is not just a human phenomenon; plants and crops can suffer from stress too, due to various biotic and abiotic factors like diseases and droughts. In fact, stress can seriously affect plant growth, which can have severe implications further down the line and lead to losses in food production. With the world’s growing population, there is a need to increase food production. One significant way to do this is to find ways to reduce stress in plants. Kirankumar Mysore, a professor at the Noble Research Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research organization in Oklahoma, focuses precisely on this issue by studying not only the varieties of stress that plants may experience, but also their effects and the implementation of mitigating factors. Mysore is a Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Scholar, who has been collaborating with the University of

Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru, on how to engineer plants for multi-stress tolerance. Mysore was recently named a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for his contributions to the field of molecular plantmicrobe interactions, particularly in the area of non-host resistance and for developing genetic resources for plant functional genomics. Excerpts from an interview with Mysore. Your work focuses on studying stress in plants. How do plants get “stressed�? Plants can experience two kinds of stresses, called biotic stress and abiotic stress. Biotic stress is caused by living organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, oomycetes, viruses, insects, and parasitic animals and plants. These organisms can infect plants to draw plant-produced

My ultimate goal is to develop multi-sstress tolerant crops.

36 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020


Could you tell us about your research projects at the Noble Research Institute? Has the coronavirus pandemic affected your work in any way? My research projects in the lab mainly focus on understanding how plants defend themselves against pathogens. In addition to this, my lab has developed genetic and

How has been your experience as a Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Scholar? Even though I have finished only one out of the three segments of my scholar program, my experience has been excellent so far. I had the opportunity to meet many researchers at the university and gained knowledge about

Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Fellowships

https://bit.ly/2RSevas

Noble Research Institute www.noble.org

University of Agricultural Sciences

www.uasbangalore.edu.in

Photographs courtesy Noble Research Institute

genomic resources in model plants, such as Medicago truncatula and Brachypodium distachyon. The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely affected my work. My lab was shut down for a couple of months, but is currently up and running at a reduced capacity. Our research productivity has gone down significantly. More importantly, my collaborative project with the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru, has been affected since I could not fulfill the scheduled visit this year.

Go Online

nutrients, thus causing stress on plants. These stresses can significantly reduce crop yield and, sometimes, they can kill the plant. Abiotic stresses are caused by non-living factors, such as heat, cold, excess water, drought, salinity, mineral toxicity, and lack of nutrients and minerals. These stresses can affect plant growth and development, causing significant reductions in crop yield. Some of these stresses (biotic and/or abiotic) can co-exist, increasing the overall magnitude of the stress on plants.

Right: Kirankumar Mysore’s projects in the Noble Research Institute lab mainly focus on understanding how plants defend themselves against pathogens. Left: Medicago truncatula, a legume model species used to assist the lab’s breeding programs for enhanced tolerance or resistance to abiotic and biotic stresses.

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 37


remains the target of Kirankumar Mysore’s nonhost resistance work. Below center: Samples

collected to study soil microbes. Bottom: The Noble Research Institute in Oklahoma.

Indian agricultural research. This may open up new collaborations in the future. I also had the opportunity to meet and advise several graduate and undergraduate students regarding their research and careers. Photographs courtesy Noble Research Institute

Below: A switchgrass plant covered in rust, a fungal pathogen that impacts key crops worldwide. Rust

Could you tell us about your collaboration with the University of Agricultural Sciences and your research to help engineer plants for multi-stress tolerance? I’ve had a long-lasting collaboration with the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru. As I mentioned, research in my lab mainly focuses on plant biotic stress tolerance. On the contrary, the research of my collaborator, Dr. Udayakumar, focuses on abiotic stress tolerance. Both biotic and abiotic stress responses share some common pathways. Better understanding of these common pathways is critical to engineer plants for multi-stress tolerance. Our expertise and research interests complement well to achieve the goal of engineering multi-stress tolerant plants. What are your future projects? Most of the current projects in my lab have been focused on basic research in model plants. My future projects will aim to translate the basic findings that we have discovered to economically important crop plants. Some of the crops that we would like to target include rice, soybean and forage crops such as alfalfa and wheat. My ultimate goal is to develop multi-stress tolerant crops.

Rybaby1979/Courtesy Wikipedia

Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.

38 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020


Five Indian companies have received licenses to manufacture the affordable VITAL ventilators designed for COVID-19 patients by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

VITAL

Courtesy Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, and NASA/JPL-Caltech

Matters

W

e have all heard a lot about ventilators in the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, much of what we have heard has to do with the crises that can follow when ventilators are in short supply. A team of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California has designed a solution to help communities around the world affected by COVID-19. Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible

By NATASA MILAS

Above: Doctors in the Department of Anesthesiology and the Human Simulation Lab at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City test a VITAL prototype on a human patient simulator.

Locally, or VITAL, is a simplified version of a traditional ventilator used in hospitals and can be produced quickly and affordably. VITAL ventilators use one-seventh of the parts of a traditional ventilator, and because

To share articles go to https://span.state.gov SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 39


Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

40 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020


www.jpl.nasa.gov

NASA www.nasa.gov

VITAL Licensees

Go Online

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

https://medeng.jpl.nasa.gov/ covid-19/ventilator/registration/ of their flexible design, they can be used not only in hospitals, but also in modified medical facilities like field hospitals set up in convention centers, hotels and other highcapacity facilities across the world. Like all ventilators, VITAL requires patients to be sedated and an oxygen tube inserted into their airway to breathe. VITAL will not replace current hospital ventilators, which can last years and are built to address a broader range of medical issues. Instead, VITAL is intended to last three to four months and is specifically tailored for COVID-19 patients. VITAL was developed in just 37 days, with inputs from doctors and medical manufacturers, and has received ventilator Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The authorization allows for the use of the device specifically for COVID-19 patients to address the acute demand for ventilators during the pandemic. “Our hope is to have this technology reach across the world and provide an additional source of solutions to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis,” says Leon Alkalai, project manager of VITAL, manager of the Office of Strategic Partnerships and a JPL fellow. The design and production of VITAL ventilators is a collaborative project between the JPL team and companies around the world that were licensed to produce and implement them in the best possible way. In India, five companies received licenses from NASA to manufacture VITAL ventilators: Alpha Design Technologies Pvt. Ltd, Bharat Forge Ltd, CuraSigna Systems Private Limited, Electrotherm Solar Limited Left: Engineers work on a VITAL prototype ventilator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 41


Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Above: Engineers, more accustomed to building spacecraft than medical devices, work on the VITAL prototype ventilator for coronavirus patients, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

42 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

and Medha Servo Drives Pvt. Ltd. “India’s diverse nature means that the pandemic could affect the country in a variety of ways,” says Rashmi Shah, a research technologist at JPL, who was on the selection committee at NASA for the VITAL ventilator licenses in India. “JPL’s approach was to develop the core device and, then, let local partners actually produce and support the product in the way that best supports the needs of the public. We assume that partners have the most in-depth knowledge of local laws and regulations and are best able to make sure that the ventilators are used where they are needed the most.” While JPL has tremendous amounts of experience in creating and operating lowvolume space systems, its foray into medical device development was a bit unorthodox. “When the pandemic first hit the area around JPL, most of the lab’s employees were sent home. This period presented a unique opportunity for the lab’s scientists and engineers to do something completely different,” says Shah. “Since the perceived

need was so great, we were quickly able to recruit medical partners who provided key insight into their needs and shared their specialized equipment that was needed to improve and validate our design.” The JPL team quickly designed the simplified version of the traditional ventilators. A key challenge was to get a medical device like this approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is usually a long process. “However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has started issuing Emergency Use Authorizations for products that are to be used for the current pandemic,” says Shah. “These EUAs mean that critical products can be accepted for use in much less time than normal.” NASA’s selection process when deciding which companies will receive licenses to produce VITAL ventilators was very comprehensive. “We required interested companies to submit proposals indicating their capabilities and intentions,” says Shah. “Essentially, we wanted companies that were able to manufacture quality products in a


Our hope is to have this technology reach across the world and provide an additional source of solutions to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

relatively short period of time.” The selection criteria were proposed approach, experience, ability to scale production, servicing and product support. “We performed an initial filter on the proposals based on the above criteria,” says Shah, “and followed up with conference calls, performed background checks on the companies and employed other Internetsearching techniques to find out what we could about the companies. All this helped us evaluate and select the companies.” VITAL ventilators in India are still in the prototyping phase and are yet to see full production and implementation. “We started this work relatively early in the pandemic, when the spread of the virus in India was very limited. We, and the companies that applied for licenses, saw a potential need and have proceeded on the assumption the virus might

spread worldwide,” says Shah. “Since our partners are in the prototyping phase and have not begun full-scale production, these ventilators are not yet in widespread use in India.” As of August 2020, 28 companies from 20 countries in the world received licenses to manufacture VITAL ventilators, including companies in India and the United States. “Each licensee is working toward starting production as soon as they are able to,” says Shah. “While we cannot predict with certainty how COVID-19 will continue to affect the world’s population, should a purported ‘second wave’ appear, we hope that the VITAL ventilators produced around the world can save lives.” Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Photographs courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Right: Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory prepare to ship a VITAL prototype ventilator for coronavirus patients to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. Far right: An engineer works on building a VITAL prototype ventilator. The VITAL team at JPL created the prototype in just 37 days.

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020 43


Registered under RNI-6586/60

Some of the engineers involved in creating a VITAL prototype at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Five companies in India have received licenses from NASA to manufacture these affordable ventilators to address the needs of COVID-19 patients.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-C Caltech

Profile for SPAN magazine

September/October 2020  

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Recommendations could not be loaded

Recommendations could not be loaded

Recommendations could not be loaded

Recommendations could not be loaded