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This aerospace engineer plans to launch satellites at a fourth of the cost

Topics Satellite

Moim S P M (left) and Srinath Ravichandran, co-founders, Agnikul Cosmos
Srinath Ravichandran had plenty of reason to be thrilled on Monday. After all, his team, which is working in the niche and difficult aree of space technology, attracted the attention of none other than the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi.

As the Prime Minister was visiting the stalls that set up at the IIT Research park in Chennai as part of the Singapore-India Hackathon event, he briefly halted at the one laid by Agnikul, a start-up that is looking at building cost-effective launch vehicles for low-orbit space missions.

"...I got to talk about Agnikul Cosmos and its 3D printed engines with none other than Shri @narendramodi ji himself. Humbled and honoured," tweeted Ravichandran, who co-founded the space startup two years ago.

Having worked in financial services firm AXA in the US as assistant vice president and later with AIG, he acquired a private pilot licence - single-engine land certificate - from the Federal Aviation Administration back in March 2016. Ravichandran, who also has a Master's degree in aerospace engineering, later decided to turn his passion into a business, and become an entrepreneur in space technology.

In December 2017, he and his friend Moin S P M, started Agnikul Cosmos, a company that designs, manufactures, tests and launches orbital class rockets for micro and nano satellites of 100 kg. The company set up base at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IITM). Agnikul, a derivative of Sanskrit word Gurukul, could be interpreted as "a place where people learn to use fire", says the company. The founding team consists of rocket engineers, space lawyers, ex-bankers and people in academia.  

Agnikul has entered the field of space commerce at a time when Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) is trying to delegate more responsibilities to the private sector, such as production of its medium-lift launch vehicle Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and its newly-conceived small satellite launch vehicle.

Agnikul's expertise lies in production of rockets using 3D printing or additive manufacturing, which makes it a unique start-up in Indian space commerce. Ravichandran says, additive manufacturing offers at least five distinct advantages. These include drastic reduction in the number of components used in a particular sub-system, need for fewer quality checks, substantial savings in the time taken to make precision components, better reliability of launch vehicles, and savings in insurance costs.

Agnikul is currently developing small-scale launch vehicles designed to launch satellites at a competitive price point of $15,000 per kilogram of payload. Agnibaan, the company's air launch vehicle, will be capable of carrying up to 100 kg of payload to low earth orbits of up to 700 km, with a plug-and-play engine configuration. "Instead of something like a train, which has a fixed timetable that passengers have to follow, the idea is to develop it like a taxi that can be hailed by the customer whenever he needs to launch something to space," Ravichandran said.  

Unlike large teams of researchers working on bigger rockets in the US, Agnikul works with a smaller one that's focused on developing cost-effective, efficient and economical vehicles for international customers.

While it works out of the National Centre for Combustion R&D (NCCRD) at IITM, its network in the UK and Singapore is helping the company reach out to overseas customers and suppliers. "We plan to do our part, both within India and outside to make space available to everyone," said the company. Agnikul expects to test its prototype in 2021.

This deep tech company was one of the 24 start-ups that received funding from Airbus' accelerator BizLab programme. "They believe that they can bring down the cost of launching one kg of mass to low earth orbits to somewhere around $10,000/kg. For these class of payloads (around 100 kg), the current rate is around $40,000/kg," says the accelerator.

In February this year, Agnikul has also raised some Rs 3 crore in seed funding from Speciale Incept Advisors. The proceeds will be used to accelerate the development of prototype and to beef up headcount. Industry experts are of the opinion that with demand for smaller vehicles rising for launching small satellites, the growth prospects for the Chennai firm look promising.

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