Space4Youth: Young voices in the space sector

From internship to entrepreneurship: looking back at a 3-month summer internship at UNOOSA's programme UN-SPIDER, after 6 years and founding an aviation start-up
by Suseendar Marimuthu

Suseendar Marimuthu

I'm Suseendar Marimuthu, from Chennai, India and this is a recollection of my internship experience with UNOOSA and how it has helped me forge a meaningful career going forward.

I interned at UN-SPIDER (United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response), in their Beijing Office. UN-SPIDER is a programme of UNOOSA that helps countries mitigate and respond to disasters by coordinating and ensuring access to timely data from space applications, while in parallel ensuring states built the capacity to leverage these data.

At the time, I was doing my master's degree in Taiwan. While my bachelor's degree had been in Aeronautical Engineering, my master's degree focused on the design and development of autonomous systems that can guide Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), better known as "drones".

The question now might be: "How does this background relate to an interest towards UN-SPIDER, or the UN in general?"

From a young age, I've held the firm belief that technology is one of the most powerful ways to improve the lives of people. Public policy, on the other hand, has the power to amplify the right ideas for public welfare.

The work of UN-SPIDER focuses on both technology and public policy, as the programme's mission is to help countries and organisations leverage space technologies to improve lives. The Programme builds the capacity of countries to leverage space applications for disaster management through Technical Advisory Missions (TAM) at the request of Member States, and through international conferences and trainings to facilitate knowledge exchange.

Working in this unique programme helped me put my own belief and learnings into a conclusive perspective: technology, leveraged through public policy, is a massive force for greater collective good.

I learnt two important lessons from my UN-SPIDER internship:

1. The use of technology has to be both right and righteous: to enable and not control
2. Technology can help us not only share the pie, but also make the pie larger, so that in turn we have more to share.

Jumping ahead in time to 2016, I founded "Blunav" - a startup focussing on niche problems in aviation. The lessons of creating sustainable value and making the pie larger has since been etched into every team member and every aspect of Blunav's short and long-term goals. In 2019, we were selected by the Ministry of Civil Aviation of India among 1600 companies who applied for the government's initiative to fund promising startups and co-develop solutions with the Airports Authority of India, putting us in the top 1% aviation startups in the country.

Since then, we have worked closely with the Airports Authority of India in using space-based data to improve ground safety of aircraft, enable smoother operations and aid in implementing the Airport Collaborative Decision Making (ACDM) system that saves an estimated 39,487 tonnes of Carbon emissions per year.

One interesting area that we're currently working on focuses on replacing the aircrafts used to perform checks on navigation equipment, by UAVs leveraging cutting edge GNSS developments. Pilots depend on signals transmitted by the Navigation Aids or "NAVAIDS" such as Instrument Landing Systems and beacons in and around airports for smooth navigation, landing and take-off of aircraft.

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Enjoying a Pizza at UN-SPIDER, Beijing. From left: Liu Longfei, Emma Gao, Han Juanjuan, myself, Shirish Ravan and my friend and fellow intern Kareem Darwish.

Calibrating such NAVAIDS once every 6 months is essential to ensure international standardization as per ICAO standards and for the continued safe operations of aircrafts. It is an expensive and resource intensive exercise that requires specially equipped aircraft (for example, a 10-seater Beechcraft 350 that costs around 8M USD), specially trained aircrew and airspace blockages of several hours (where general aviation traffic around an airport is halted) to be carried out.

Only 11 out of 53 countries and territories in the Asia-Pacific region have the capacity to conduct such NAVAIDS calibration. The remaining countries depend on calibration services from neighbouring nations that have surplus 'hours' on their calibration aircraft. This scarce supply in calibration capacity has put a strain on the compliance record of airports, ultimately affecting passenger safety and restricting the development of traffic and airport capacity. Small countries, often island nations, that are beginning to enter the aviation market are among the most affected, as they are not self-sufficient in developing and maintaining the support infrastructure required. A similar trend is also observed in the Caribbean and in Africa.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation of the United Nations (ICAO) also has historically facilitated such calibration services with the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), while holding conferences to enable information sharing in parallel.

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Blunav receiving an Award of Funding and Technical collaboration from the Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation of India, after winning a nationwide competition conducted by Government of India, where we over 1600 startups participated.

Blunav's innovation in this area aims to reduce the capital and operating expenditure for such calibration activities by over 90% while ensuring the same standards prescribed by ICAO, while also cutting down CO2 ¬emissions by approximately 370 tonnes per calibration aircraft per year. This is achieved by using special purpose UAVs with a sophisticated signal analysis payload, capable of staying in the air for more than 5 hours. This would enable smaller countries and players to build capacity and realise self-sufficiency in NAVAIDS inspection, ultimately fostering compliance to ICAO standards and recommended practices in the flight calibration area.

We are a 12-member team now, with the presence of some senior retired aviation veterans on our advisory board - a great combination of young team and experienced oversight. With our focus on such high technology areas, we have generated substantial value for the company in terms of intellectual property, which has attracted some exceptional talent excited by the chance to work on challenging problems. 

I'd like to close with some thoughts for my friends in technology and public policy and for young techno-entrepreneurs like myself:

1. Internships are enriching experiences that allow students and aspiring professionals to experience organizations and their driving forces first-hand. Such exposure is invaluable and can have a transformative effect.
2. Technology and policy can enable each other in a virtuous circle, which makes it all the more important for people working in technology to innovate in the right areas and for policy makers/ practitioners to leverage technology, to mutually amplify each other's intent.
3. Especially for entrepreneurs: wealth creation is a by-product of value creation, not the other way around. By understanding both sides of the story, it is possible to find a niche and create business models that customers are happy to pay for.
4. For larger-than-life problems, larger-than-life alignment and cooperation is required. Discussions, partnerships, collaborations are the fastest way toward reaching a great solution.

I would like to thank UNOOSA again for the summer internship in 2014, where I learnt about how technology and public policy can work wonders together.

I wish more such opportunities can be made available for more young people from all over the world in the future.

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