Podcast: The digital transformations ahead (Pt. 2)

Viasat Chief Technology Officer Girish Chandran on the future of connected cars, farms, drones and more (Part 2)


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 either in the future or already in use today.

This is Part 2 of a two-part conversation between Chandran and Alex Miller with Viasat corporate communications.

Transcript, podcast

Girish Chandran, part 2

Alex Miller: Hi I’m Alex Miller with Viasat corporate communications here with the second part of my interview with Girish Chandran, Viasat’s chief technology officer. In the first part of our conversation, Girish talked about smart cars, connected cities and how satellite augments terrestrial connectivity. In part two, we get a little deeper into smart farming, drones, border security and more about how satellite is part of the global network. Here’s the interview.
Alex Miller: So what are the connectivity needs of the agricultural industry. And how does satellite fit into that?
Girish Chandran: There are several kinds of applications in farming. So the need to get more outputs from farms that we spoke about earlier with fewer people is driving the need for more and more technology in farming. So in the old days for example, people used to throw seeds by hand. And now what’s happening is that in order to get higher outputs, seed planting is done with machines that operate very precisely. So think of planting seeds like printing 3D objects, except it’s done on the ground. It’s 3-D printing on earth. Seeding, very precisely. Harvesting is done in an automated way. And all of this is possible when you can have connected vehicles that can be controlled very precisely.
Alex Miller: Right.
Girish Chandran: So also fertilizer costs can be dramatically cut when there is precision agriculture. For example you can apply fertilizer precisely where you need it versus spraying it all over the place. So if you look at crop infestation that’s another example; there are satellites that have passive, multi-spectral imaging sensors that are able to detect crop infestation. Then there are active sensors that can be put on drones and the drones can collect data as they’re flying around in these large farms and send data back via satellite. We also talked about monitoring agriculture but there are similar things in terms of aquaculture. So fish farmers or fishing fleets going out right. There are regulations now there to make sure that there is not a lot of overfishing. So you have to have monitoring on vessels that are out at sea. And these types of applications you really need to have satellite connectivity.
Alex Miller: Right, yeah, for aquaculture I can see. I know there’s a lot of illegal fishing goes on out there, that this is a way that you can get a handle on that. So talking about you’d mentioned drones, I know border security is a big issue not only in the U.S. but other areas around the world. So what are the technologies that a satellite company like Viasat can deploy to those areas that can help governments patrol their borders?
Girish Chandran: So we’re working with companies in Europe, organizations in Europe for border security applications. So there is a lot of refugees coming from wars in Syria and in some countries in North Africa into many European countries. These countries want to be able to monitor their borders and look at using drones to see what’s happening across the borders and these drones have satellite connectivity. We’re working on some proposals with them on that.
Alex Miller: Remote monitoring is another interesting area for our technology, with one promising area related to connected drones. We talked a little bit about one kind of connected drones but there’s another application where, say a utility company or something can use satellite and drones to help monitor their infrastructure. Can you explain how that would work?
Girish Chandran: There are drones with satellite connectivity that can be used in many applications. We’ve been using drones in the military for many years now. These are really expensive drones that are able to have very high definition video with high speed links back to control centers via satellites. These drones are flying over enemy territory on recon missions. Like there are less expensive drones that would potentially have some sort of satellite connectivity. We have a group within Viasat that builds modems with lower bandwidth connectivity, which is fine for things like monitoring infrastructure like what you were talking about. So for example, you could have drones flying along railway tracks looking to see if the railway lines are OK and these have video streamed back to wherever the control centers are, making sure that the trains are run safely.
Alex Miller: I’m thinking about, you reference the Paradise fire and now they’re saying PG&E equipment may have been responsible for that. You can see a use right there where they may have been able to identify something like that earlier if they had that kind of drone surveillance.
Girish Chandran: We have some use cases where utility companies are looking at satellite connectivity for industrial IOT applications. We have oil reservoir and water reservoir monitoring applications, those are all examples where these are in remote places where you might need satellite connectivity and we’re talking to a few companies to see if there is traction there.
Alex Miller: So looking ahead a little bit, it sounds like we’ve talked about satellite as playing a pretty important role in a lot of these digital transformation areas. So how does that speak to the overall value in the coming years as an integral part of the global connectivity landscape?
Girish Chandran: There is almost a linear relationship between internet penetration and GDP growth. Take for example Africa. It’s one of the fastest growing continents where the population of the young is growing at a very dramatic rate. There’s not a lot of infrastructure there, and there’s in particular not a lot of telecom infrastructure and we’ve experimented there with ... we put a cellular backhaul site with satellite connectivity in a village and within a handful of days, we found thousands of devices connecting to the cell site where there was none before.
Alex Miller: Oh wow.
Girish Chandran: So it has a dramatic impact on people’s lives. It’ll improve the GDP of countries. Take for example agriculture even. So the annual growth in the US of smart agriculture is expected to be in the 13 to 15 percent. So from 2017 to 2025 in some studies, so roughly 5 billion to 15 billion growth. Most of the value is where the decision making happens. So companies like John Deere are transforming themselves into data companies to take advantage of data analytics. But in order to do this you need to have data sent back to places where the analysis needs to be done. So that’s where connectivity becomes important.
Alex Miller: So we are working on the ViaSat-3 constellation which will eventually give us global connectivity. So how does Viasat as a company look at these expanding applications, with this ViaSat-3 constellation and the total addressable market that a global constellation like that can serve?
Girish Chandran: Like we spoke about, connectivity has a very dramatic impact in terms of outcomes, whether it’s in health in villages or in smart cities. And it transforms people’s lives. The Viasat 3 constellation will have virtually worldwide connectivity, including over the oceans. So whether you’re looking at transportation of people or goods, creating smart cities or creating technology infrastructure to connect to vehicles, smart agriculture ... this is going to have a big impact like we spoke about. If internet were its own sector, it would have a greater impact on the GDP of a country than agriculture or utilities. So I’m very excited to be part of this journey that’s going to have this transformative effect on people’s lives.
Alex Miller: All right. Well it really sounds like the digital transformation that we’re undergoing across the world is just really starting and it’s interesting to hear how satellite is going to be a big part of it. So thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with us today, Girish, and hopefully we’ll touch back again soon and see where some of this stuff is going.
Girish Chandran: Thank you Alex. And looking forward to ViaSat-3 constellation going up, and when it covers the world, that’s going to be pretty fun.
Alex Miller: Yep absolutely. All right. Thank you.

Listen to the podcast:

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is the editor of the Viasat corporate blog. A veteran newspaper reporter and editor, Alex has been with Viasat since 2012, working out of the company’s Denver office.