Fri. Sep 24th, 2021

Tapan Misra

You land in Tel Aviv, get into one of many hotels overlooking Tel Aviv Beach. You will be surprised to realise the innovation, brought by Israelis, even to the sea shore. You will see periodic structure of bunds and sea openings around a few hundred meters in the placid Mediterranean Sea. They are like in multiple slit experiments in college physics class or popularly called diffraction grating. They create periodic wave maxima structures on the shore by interference of mild sea waves. So Israelis convert placid Mediterranean coast to one with large waves, attracting tourists from all around.

I had chance of visiting Israel many a times. A small country that you can crisscross within a day by car. A tiny population of around 9 million – 30% less than Mumbai and 60% more than Ahmedabad.


This tiny country has produced 12 Nobel Lareates since 1966. With a population equivalent to 0.7% of India, Israel has 12% of India’s GDP. Israel is a formidable force in diamond cutting, cutting edge medical equipment, very large-scale integration (VLSI) or technology with many devices on one chip, machinery, armament industry, high-end electronics, chemicals, pharmaceutical products and in agriculture technology. And of course cyber security and cyber intelligence. Recently politicians in our country have been heating up media debates on Pegasus spyware from the cyberarms firm – NSO Group – of Israel.

Almost all of their industries are built on their own innovations. We can gauge the scale of their innovations from the fact that they file 50% more patents than whole of India put together.

The population is a microcosm of almost all races on the earth. Jews from all over the world built this country, a fiercely democratic one. You visit any shop, any house, any front desk of hotel. You will see two flags. One Israeli and the other of the country where the person originates. Indian Jews constitute a sizeable section of population, guessed from the wide visibility of Indian flags.

What strikes you are the innovations in this country. I tried to delve into the base of the innovation culture. Superior education and world class universities. They boast of 9 very top class universities. After completion of schooling, children, both boys and girls, have to serve conscription, mandatorily for two years. But children with bright academic records are sent to laboratories, universities, industries as conscripts. Children, barely in their teens, in military uniform, are a common sight working shoulder to shoulder with great scientists, engineers, historians, politicians, authors. Just unbelievable exposure to bright minds.

The work places are very simple. I visited aero space industries. Initially I was taken aback at the sight of very casual, factory shed type get up of the laboratories. I am accustomed to working in Temples of modern India, big buildings, plush interiors, housing large egos.

I visited a world class TWTA manufacturing facility, just a couple of shabby rooms, under a metal shed. TWTAs were getting assembled on a large dining table, with handful of technicians and engineers spread around. Just unimaginable.

To my utter surprise, the space payloads and satellites are made with commercial and military grade components, a far cry from a ten fold costly space grade components we, ISROites, are accustomed to.

They are the first people to bring out miniaturised and agile SAR and optical satellites, small enough to fit in their small, fully solid fuelled, SHAVIT launcher.

Normally everywhere, the Near Field antenna scanner scans in vertical plane, complicating the mounting of antennas. But their NF scanner, scans in horizontal plane, almost attached to ceiling. The antenna is kept on the floor for measurement, easing all mounting and zero g problems.

I visited an optical satellite manufacturing facility. I was depressed at seeing such a cramped, matter of fact small clean room, with a thermo vacuum chamber fitted on the wall, with chamber door opening inside the clean room. I was surprised how could they bring out such a sophisticated space camera which can clearly bring out white lines on the foodball field or broken or missing chairs in the pavilion of Marcana stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Our facilities are very big, like big playing fields with great deal of razzmatazz associated with.

Microsatellites are more difficult to manage than big satellites. In ISRO, a big amount was invested in designing micro reaction wheel. When I visited, Technion University, I was surprised that the micro satellite, they were building, was equipped with reaction wheels made of commercial CD ROM drive motors, with a CD ROM, glued to the drive motor, working as fly wheel.

The small lab there was chock-a-block with ion thrusters from unbelievable micro g class to milli g class, at various levels of testing. I was impressed with the level of space technology coming out of University labs.

I visited an atomic clock facility in Jerusalem. They supply atomic clocks to almost all fighter aeroplanes, being manufactured in the Western world. They supply atomic clocks to many space missions, including deep space ones. They manufacture atomic clocks of various sizes, 1 inch cube to 1 foot cube.

The company turned out beyond my imagination. It is housed in a three bedroom flat, no trace of a clean room. Only clean place was a table top glove box, filled with pure Rubidium vapour at saturation vapour pressure at 86 deg C. A number of test tube like glass pipes were pinched by heated glass pincher in the glove box, to produce Rubidium bulbs of all sizes. I was amazed at simplicity of manufacturing, beyond my imagination.

A typical metal rack, a flea market variety, floor to ceiling in one side of a room, was packed with atomic clocks of various sizes. May be one hundred plus in number. They were being tested for long term stability. Lo and behold, there was only one phase noise analyser system, which was being used in multiplexed mode. I contrasted with the sophisticated lab we built in SAC for this purpose. A VLSI fab grade clean room. The lab in Jerusalem was a far cry from the imposing lab of ours.

I was told that there is no custom of over-time work in Israel. Normally in that aerospace complex, working hour ends at 5 pm. However, those who work on their own volition beyond 7 pm, they are gifted 4 packets of sumptuous packaged dinner on their way back home. Many employees used to avail this opportunity as their family can get a free evening which they can invest in taking their children to music or dance or skating or painting classes. Great idea. Win win for both the employee and employer.

The visits confirmed my belief that a frugal environment, frugal outlook and frugal funding actually trigger superb innovations at a cheap cost. Our forefathers realised the importance of frugality in the quality of learning. In our ancient days, learning in Brahmacharya was accompanied by frugality. Sooner we realise the importance of this virtue, faster we will climb in innovation index.

The author with NASA Administrator, acclaimed astronaut and former Space Shuttle Commander, Charles Bolden, who visited SAC in 2013 to specifically visit the lab where RISAT could be built at an unbelievably low cost under the leadership of Tapan Misra

The author, Tapan Misra, is a distinguished scientist. He has headed the Space Application Centre of India and was also Advisor ISRO, Department of Space, Government of India. He commands respect across the world for his contribution to India’s Space Programme.


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