Podcast: A look at the digital transformations ahead

Viasat Chief Technology Officer Girish Chandran on the future of connected cars, farms, drones and more (Part 1)


As Viasat’s Chief Technology Officer, Girish Chandran spends a lot of time thinking about the future of the connected world. In this podcast, we spoke to Chandran about how satellite communications technology from Viasat will be an integral part of the digital ecosystem in the years to come.

Girish Chandran headshot

Girish Chandran

Whether it’s connected cars, ships, trains, or aircraft, satellite will have a role in most of the “smart” technologies in the future as well as those already in use today.

This is Part 1 of a two-part conversation between Chandran and Alex Miller with Viasat corporate communications.

Listen to the first part of this conversation

Transcript, podcast

Girish Chandran, May 2019 - Part 1

Alex Miller: Hello and welcome to the Viasat Conversation podcast. I’m Alex Miller with corporate communications and with me today is Girish Chandran, Viasat’s chief technology officer. Girish, we wanted to talk to you today about the area of digital transformation. So from Viasat’s perspective, this refers to ways in which our technology can enable connectivity in ways that maybe weren’t possible just a few years ago. So this could mean everything from connected cars and planes to smart cities and agriculture. To start with some context. what’s driving this need for connectivity in these different applications?
Girish Chandran: If you look at the different examples, they all have different needs. Let’s take the example of cars. There are several aspects in a car that require the need for connectivity. Driver safety is a very central element. Cars now have the ability to detect fatigue and warn drivers. Then there are better routing algorithms that steer you through traffic in a more efficient way. If you look at smart cities, you know parking is one of the big issues in cities. So even in San Diego there is an effort at putting cameras on streetlights that can be then used to direct users to a parking spot in garages or even open spaces. Then there is monitoring for prevention of crime, and a number of use cases to monitor emissions from cars and other vehicles. Or take the example of farming which you brought up. In 1776 when America got its independence, well over 90 percent of the people were engaged in farming. The population then was a few million. Over 240 years later, in 2019 the population is about 320 million in the US. Many people from the farms have migrated over the years to the cities in search of a better life. There are fewer farmers now - about 1.5 million - and the farm sizes have gotten significantly larger. So what this means is the efficiency of production has grown dramatically. If this trend continues, that is if the population continues growing and the farm sizes start shrinking, we’ll need farms to get more efficient with fewer farmers. This leads to the increasing use of technology to drive efficiency. Smart farming is becoming increasingly adopted in the US. And in large countries like Brazil, the farm sizes are getting even bigger than the US.
Alex Miller: Ok. So well let’s talk a little bit about connected vehicles. So we know Viasat has made great strides with connected aircraft and moving to an industry leader in just a few years. So how do we take what we know about connecting planes and apply it to other vehicles, like everything from ships at sea to military vehicles on the ground?
Girish Chandran: So airline companies try to run very efficiently to keep the costs low. They aren’t making a lot of profit so they have to make sure they’re running efficiently. So operational data that saves them time and keep the planes flying in air creates greater revenue. And they also care a lot about the costs of fuel; costs are very important. So connectivity informs the pilots of weather and allows rerouting of traffic both for safety and efficiency. There was a London School of Economics study that showed that the annual savings could be upwards of 15 billion dollars across the airline industry. Sophisticated decision-making about rerouting flights happens elsewhere and in those cases data needs to be pushed from where it’s collected, which is on the airplanes, and sent to where it’s analyzed and decisions made. And then it’s sent back and actuators on the flights are then enabled to do what’s necessary to run the engines more efficiently or reroute the planes etc. So these are examples of why connectivity is important. It’s sort of like the connective tissue that allows your limbs to function correctly. Airlines also use connectivity to keep passengers entertained or allow passengers to connect to the internet for information. These same applications of connectivity applies to cars and engines. Take for example cars; passengers could stream Netflix or Disney. Software update in cars could be done via satellite. So cars are now software platforms on wheels. So they need software updates periodically and instead of recalling them back to the dealerships you could do software updates via satellite. Same thing with ships, whether it’s commercial, cruise ships or yachts with a handful of people or even a Navy ship where connectivity can be used for entertainment, for information about weather etc. So you’re no longer working in isolation. You have access to the world’s information at your fingertips. That allows you not just connectivity for sailors to their homes or keep talking to people in battlefields, right in the seas, but you can also talk to commanders that want to connect back to headquarters to make decisions in the throes of a fight. It could also be used to send information to connect to loved ones back at home.
Alex Miller: Right, yeah I mean, I know that those guys that are on those Navy ships and on long deployments don’t get to talk to their family much in between. So this would be a huge plus for them.
Girish Chandran: Yes. The connectivity has enabled a very significant role in making lives smoother for people on ships, on long deployments for sure.
Alex Miller: So another another area we hear a lot about these days is the connected car which you referenced there. So where does Viasat see itself in this kind of applications and what are the challenges there? It seems like a smaller antenna is the first thing you’d need to address.
Girish Chandran: Yeah, there are multiple types of connectivity that cars need. So there are real time needs where you need to make decisions in the millisecond range. So that happens locally in cars, or if you buy newer cars you know that cars come with features that allow inter-car spacing to be maintained. Those kinds of decisions are done locally with short range communication. And then there are vehicle to infrastructure connectivity. So the first one was vehicle to vehicle connectivity. The second one happens in near real time, where the traffic lights and vehicles communicate in order to get efficient flow of traffic through intersections. A third kind is non real-time applications and these kinds of applications can be in the seconds to multiple seconds kind of range. And this is the application where satellite can come into play, where these are high bandwidth applications, whether to do software updates or for doing entertainment that we spoke about earlier. We are working on an antenna, a phased array antenna that sits flat on top of the roof of a car. And we are now trialing that here in Carlsbad as we speak. And when you go to OEM as they integrate it into the car, the advantage of this is that if you’re driving across Texas or Montana where there may not be a lot of cellular connectivity and you want to make sure you’re connected, you need satellites for this. And so typically in cars you can get cellular connectivity today when you buy either subscriptions through Verizon and or AT&T or T-Mobile or Sprint in the US. And if you decide to go to Europe you need other subscriptions just like you do for cellular roaming. You knew you’d need connectivity from different providers. With satellite connectivity you just need for example a subscription from Viasat and you can drive across the U.S. because you can have visibility to the satellite from very large swaths of the country or across continents.
Alex Miller: Right, yeah, that would be a real game changer for people driving, especially through the deserts and the American West and places like that.
Girish Chandran: Yes.
Alex Miller: So I just want to ask about, so when you are talking about the three kinds of connectivity like in a smart city you’ve got the satellite that might be doing so software downloads and streaming things like that. You’ve got maybe mobile like LTE or maybe even 5G that’s doing some of the, you know, to the traffic signals and things like that, but the car to car, that’s like milliseconds. That’s really, really short because if you’re going to stop in time to not bump into somebody, what’s that technology. Is it Bluetooth or something?
Girish Chandran: No it’s basically radar type technology so that they use radar and lidar type technology to make decisions today in terms of inter-car spacing. So they shoot out these pulses that then reflect back. It’s like bats that echo locate. So similar to what you see today in terms of when you back up your car you’ll end up hearing beeps; those are little audio ultrasonic sensors that are used, so there are different frequency ranges for different types of uses within a car. So the cars today have lots of sensors on them. Similarly airplanes today have thousands and thousands of sensors on them and you have multiple wireless networks within cars which we don’t often think about, but these cars have become highly networked within themselves and now you also have other forms of connectivity. So for example if you were driving a GM, you can get an OnStar subscription and you’ll see these OnStar console buttons where you can push for help or ask for directions in case you’re stuck or look for the nearest gas station or update your maps et cetera. Those OnStar things are done via satellite.
Alex Miller: Ok, wow, yeah, it really helps you see that self-driving vehicles could be right around the corner with all of this. So in a related area that Viasat’s been working on is in the connected health and disaster communications and I know we’ve been doing some testing with ambulances in Europe focused on the lifesaving benefit of emergency personnel being able to actually communicate in real time with doctors on the ground before before the patient even gets to the hospital. So I want to ask why is that important and how is Viasat making those connections?
Girish Chandran: Yeah, emergency response is a very interesting use case and we can also talk about connected health in general. So the outcomes when an emergency room is prepared with the right kind of doctors and the right kind of equipment and medicines before ambulances or helicopters show up has very dramatic differences in terms of trauma outcomes, the ability to save lives. So we’re working on technologies that can have connectivity even through rotor blades that are spinning around in a helicopter, so we can communicate through this in an uninterrupted fashion. So if you’re doing medi-vac type stuff, say for example you want to do rescues over coastal areas or at sea or in remote areas, these kinds of technologies become important. Similarly with ambulances. Or for example if you have emergencies in the case of fire. For example we had the Paradise fire not too long ago in California where 85 people lost their lives. And getting phone calls through their cellular infrastructure was quite difficult. And so we have technologies, we have radios that are easily deployed so that you can get to these places quickly.
Alex Miller: Right. So when like the terrestrial infrastructure has been destroyed, you can bring in satellite equipment and get it online pretty quickly to help in emergencies.
Girish Chandran: That’s right. And what happens is if you have higher bandwidth connections we can even have video connection. So for example in a connected health application or even an emergency application, if you could actually see the condition of the patient remotely that can help the doctors prepare or in case of connected health type applications, help diagnose remotely. So it’s not that all sorts of health outcomes are affected. But suppose you wanted to look at the condition of your eye and you had a camera that you could stream out to your doctor via satellite located remotely, you could do that. And we’re going to be trying some of these applications out in the not too distant future.
Alex Miller: Right. Yeah. And you know we all think of the ambulances and emergency vehicles are all well equipped with radios. But having an ability to stream video really can make quite a difference in those particular cases that you mentioned. Speaking of disaster communications, Viasat participated I believe it was last fall in a NATO exercise in Europe that illustrated how quickly satellite can fill in when terrestrial communications go down. So I was wondering, can you explain how that works and the value that satellite brings to those situations?
Girish Chandran: You know this sort of thing happens very frequently in the East Coast of the United States. Every year we get hurricane season and you have these big storms blowing through. And what happens is that the cell towers topple over and suddenly you don’t have connectivity in a town or a city. When disaster strikes everybody wants to know what’s going on but people who are remote who want to know what’s happening to their loved ones and people who are in the city wanting to reach out and letting others know what their evacuation plan is. So there is a demand surge and the cellular infrastructure that’s already now impaired gets heavily congested. So you know a few years ago during Hurricane Sandy, we ended up working with Red Cross to get transportable satellite terminals into relief camps where they would very quickly be able to set up these satellite dishes. In a very simple way, you just open up the box and the satellite auto deploys and points to the satellite. So you have access at that camp to medical information or other kinds of information that you need because you have internet connectivity or you could send pictures to other communities that are engaged in disaster relief, whether it’s disaster relief in Nepal or hard to reach places or in mountainous areas or in fires, the cellular infrastructure ends up with a lot of stress and that’s where a satellite can help. And so disaster relief agencies can go in and set up these satellite dishes in these areas and the satellites are not subject to the same kind of issues because the satellite itself is 36,000 kilometers or 22,000 miles up in the sky and not subject to weather or outages or a storm. So the ground infrastructure that support the satellite communication is such that even though the terminals are where the people are, you’re pointing up to the satellite that’s in the sky, and the downlink from the satellite is in a place where there’s no storm, and it connects to the internet there. So you have the ability to have a resilient infrastructure that deals with this situations in a nice way, and allows a lot of relief agencies to be effective in providing communication and all the support. And we recently had similar sort of experiences helping in Puerto Rico when the storm hit there, and in Brazil where there was a dam that burst and we were able to provide disaster relief communications very quickly.
Alex Miller: Ok. That concludes the first part of our conversation with Viasat chief technology officer Girish Chandran. The second part of this podcast focuses on some other digital transformation technologies in which satellite also will play a big role. We’ll get a little deeper into smart farming and also talk about drones, border security and more. Be sure to check it out on the Viasat blog or podcast page.